The bones of Jesus

In response to the “How God Really Works” post, a commenter writes:

OK, friend, then tell me what “real” person took the body of Jesus Christ from the tomb? And where is the very real body of Jesus today? Don’t go the Jesus-bones-route…that’s played, and proven false.

Investigate the evidence for yourself.

Sounds like an interesting “field trip.” Let’s get started.

First off, if we’re going to look for the body of somebody who died almost 2,000 years ago, we need to recognize the fact that, with very rare exceptions, dead bodies decay into dust in far less than two millennia. A dead Jesus would ordinarily be expected to leave remains that simply would not survive (if that’s the word) for that long. If Jesus’s body were still here on earth, and he were still living in it, that would be one thing. But in fact, as the questioner points out, Jesus’s body is not here, which is exactly what we would expect if it has succumbed to ordinary decomposition.

What about the empty tomb, though? Why was it empty, and who took the body out? Odds are, the disciples did. Ah, I can see hands going up all over the classroom. Ok, you first. “If the disciples took Jesus’s body, how could they keep it a secret? Wouldn’t the word leak out? Wouldn’t it be widely reported that the disciples took Jesus body?” Yes, very good question.

You’re right, it’s not very likely that the disciples could have taken Jesus’s body and kept it a secret for long. If that’s what did happen, the story would be all over Palestine, and would come up frequently whenever the Gospel story was being told. And you know what? According to Matthew 28:12-15, that’s exactly how things went:

When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day. [Emphasis mine.]

So according to Matthew, it was widely reported that the disciples “stole” the body of Jesus, just as we would expect if that were what really happened. In fact, the whole point of Matthew’s story is to try and discredit this common report among the residents of Israel. And notice, Matthew never reveals his source for this story. He’s not quoting a confession from any of those that paid the bribes nor from any of those that took the bribe, which is not surprising considering the penalties for bribery. Nor does Matthew claim to have received this information in the form of a vision or revelation from God.

This story has all the earmarks of a tale that someone made up in order to supply a plausible answer to an embarrassing hole in the Gospel. It sounds reasonable, and it appeals to people’s mistrust of soldiers and Jews, and it provides absolutely zero documentary evidence that what it claims is true. It’s not even plausible: why would the governor listen to the Jewish priests telling him not to discipline guards who confessed to sleeping on the job? How would the guards even know who stole the body if they were asleep at the time? There’s all kinds of holes in Matthew’s story. It tries to explain why everybody knew the disciples took Jesus’s body, but the explanation doesn’t really hold water.

Ok, next question. “How could the disciples have stolen the body without getting into a major battle with the guards?” Another good question, and once again the Bible comes to our aid. According to Matthew 27:62-65, the chief priests and Pharisees didn’t even ask for a guard until the day after Jesus was buried in the rich man’s tomb. The disciples had several hours, most of them under the cover of darkness, in which to remove the body, should they have wished to do so. (Incidentally, this fact has been in the Bible for over 1900 years. Have you ever heard a Christian apologist mention it?)

Yes, thank you, your question? “Wouldn’t it violate the Sabbath to take Jesus’s body after sundown on Friday?” Technically, yes it would, just as it technically broke the sabbath for the disciples to pluck wheat and eat it. Jesus was notorious for taking a much more liberal view of Sabbath laws than was traditional among the Pharisees. All it would take to get Jesus’s body out of the tomb would be to find a few good men who loved the “Lord of the Sabbath” more than the Sabbath itself, an attitude that the Bible says Jesus encouraged his disciples to cultivate.

“But why would the disciples say he rose from the dead if he didn’t really rise?” Yes, that’s the 64 denarius question, isn’t it? But if there’s one thing that Jesus taught his disciples, it’s how to have more than one variety of “truth.” Jesus taught that above and beyond the mundane, material truth of the visible, audible and tangible world, there was a deeper, less-obvious, and more important spiritual truth that was still true even though it wasn’t necessarily all that consistent with literal physical reality.

You see this same attitude in Christians today, who will tell you without any sense of guilt or duplicity both that Jesus is in heaven and that Jesus is living in their hearts. Obviously, it’s not literally, physically true that any of them have a 2,000 year old Jewish man residing in their left ventricle. That would be fatal, if it were even possible. But the fact that it is not literally true does not make the Christian feel like it’s lying to call it spiritually true.

All that’s needed for disciples to take Jesus’s body away, and still claim that he rose from the dead, is for them to decide that Jesus rose from the dead spiritually. Granted, in later decades the Church decided that a spiritual resurrection was too Gnostic, but that was after they got themselves organized and grew strong enough to sustain themselves without the Gnostic support. In the earliest days of the Church this was not necessarily the case. Many Gnostic ideas circulated in the early church, and Gnosticism was something even the apostles struggled with or against. Entire Gnostic Gospels were written and circulated as Christian documents (though later rejected and anathematized by the Church, of course).

There was plenty of fertile ground, therefore, for the idea of a resurrection to take shape, first as a spiritual resurrection, and later on as a more literal, physical return from the dead. We even have some documentary evidence of this: the oldest of the Gospels, Mark, does not mention any resurrection at all in its earliest manuscripts, and the later manuscripts that do tack on a resurrection story don’t all attach the same story. Even more significantly, one of the earliest epistles, of Paul to the Corinthians, spends a considerable amount of time arguing for a spiritual resurrection, in explicit contrast to the physical body which was buried (I Cor. 15:35-50).

Modern theologians view this passage as saying that the resurrection body is “physical PLUS spiritual”, emphasizing the identity of the risen body with the body that was buried. The text itself, however, remains as Paul wrote it, drawing comparison after comparison of how what rises up is a different sort of body from what was buried in the ground. He even goes so far as to insist that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” If you try, you can make Paul’s words fit in with modern theology, but you’d be hard put to argue for a spiritual resurrection any more clearly than Paul did in I Cor. 15.

There’s a lot more that could be said, obviously, but this will do for a quick tour of what happened to Jesus’s body. Let me close by pointing out that many criticisms can be made of the above material, but there is one thing which it has in its favor: the situation we see in the real world today is perfectly consistent with what we would expect to find if Jesus died, and his body decomposed, and his disciples carried on with a “spiritual” resurrection that gradually evolved into a tale of physically rising from the dead. Even the Bible has precisely the sorts of quirks we would expect to emerge from this kind of haphazard genesis.

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