Easter Special: How to Fake a Resurrection (Without Really Trying)April 4, 2010 — Deacon Duncan
When I was a believer, I was frequently bothered by the inconsistencies and self-contradictions that I encountered in the Gospel, the Bible and Christianity in general. In these times of doubt, my one solid anchor was the doctrine of the Resurrection. All else might be in doubt, and some things might even be wrong, but the Resurrection couldn’t be fake, because it changed the lives of the disciples, and they wouldn’t have died for a lie. Right?
That was the one piece of evidence that no skeptic could explain, not with a “swoon theory,” not with a “disciples stole the body” (in front of armed guards? without anyone finding out?) theory—in short, not without a miracle at least as big as the one they were trying to explain away. And as long as the Resurrection was real, everything else was OK. I could just ask Jesus all my questions when I saw Him.
Unfortunately, I was wrong. There is at least one perfectly plausible explanation for the Resurrection that would produce exactly the evidence we have today, including the invincible faith of the apostles and martyrs. And it wouldn’t take a miracle to pull it off.
Stage Zero: The Preconditions
In order for this “resurrection” to work, we need a few preconditions in place. First of all, we need a group of people who believe in the resurrection of the dead. That one’s easy enough, of course: the Jews had a belief in a Zoroastrian-style resurrection and judgment ever since the Farsi Jews came back from the Babylonian Captivity. At least the Pharisees did. Even better, they had a controversial belief in the resurrection of the dead, because some Jews denied it. This multiplies the reward a believer would experience from thinking they saw a genuine resurrection, because you don’t just get back a lost loved one, you also get to prove that your theological enemies are wrong.
The next element we need is a group of disciples who believe that it is permissible to do good on the Sabbath, even when your actions are technically a violation of the Law of Moses. We have that one too: Jesus publicly taught, on multiple occasions, that good works were permissible on the Sabbath, despite the objections of the Pharisees, even when you were doing things explicitly forbidden by the Law. Note that all we need are disciples who believe that they are permitted to break the Sabbath—they don’t have to prove to anyone that their belief is correct. It is sufficient that Jesus has given them a precedent for doing what they think God truly wants them to do, even if it breaks the Mosaic tradition of Sabbath-keeping.
Lastly, we need a group of believers who believe in a spiritual reality that is greater and more significant than mere earthly, materialistic reality. Once again, we have that in abundance in Jesus’ ministry, telling people not to store up treasures on earth, but to invest in the treasures of heaven, sending his disciples to preach that “the kingdom is near” and promising that whoever received them would be given a prophet’s reward (Matt. 10). Jesus was the original author of the phrase “born again,” referring to a spiritual rebirth that would bestow spiritual blessings on the believer. He also made the original promise of a Holy Spirit that would enter into believers and illuminate their hearts and minds.
Stage One: The Empty Tomb
Ok, we’ve got our prerequisites, now let’s turn the death of Jesus into a bogus resurrection. The first thing we need is an empty tomb. That’s easy enough: all we need is somebody to move the body. There are lots of potential candidates, though few would actually have the motive to pull it off. The Herodians, for instance, might have done it out of a desire to stir up trouble for the Pharisees by vexing them with an annoying cult, but that’s pretty far-fetched. What’s much more likely, though, is that the disciples themselves would have done it.
How could the disciples have done it? Wouldn’t that make them party to a deliberate deception, and thus unlikely to die for their faith? Not necessarily. First of all, they might not have done it to deliberately fake a resurrection. Perhaps they simply objected to the idea of Jesus being laid to rest in the tomb of a man like Joseph. The evangelists tell us that Joseph was a secret Christian, a member of the Council who had not consented to their actions, but the disciples wouldn’t necessarily have known that at the time.
Remember, too, that Jesus had a lot of disciples, and not just the famous Twelve Apostles. Nor were the original Christians a united, homogeneous group, as the New Testament itself records. They suffered the full range of internal rivalries, discord, and internal politics. Not all of them would necessarily have asked the Apostles for permission to move the body, or even told them they had done so. With Jesus dead, not all of them would have continued to believe in the (derived) authority of his lieutenants. They would be willing and able to act independently, to move Jesus’ body without the Apostles’ knowledge.
It might be objected that, being good Jews, none of Jesus’ disciples would have broken the Sabbath. That, however, presupposes two things: that all of Jesus’ disciples were “good’ Jews, and that none of them would believe that it might be permissible to do God’s will on the Sabbath. As we’ve already noted, Jesus’ definition of a “good” Jew was substantially different from the Pharisees’ legalistic adherence to Sabbath minutiae, so we can’t safely assume that every single individual disciple would be deterred by Pharisaic prohibitions against handling dead bodies on the Sabbath. Some grieving disciple, in the emotion of the moment, might even act in a way that he or she would later feel guilty about. But they would still do it.
That leaves the problem of the guards, but only Matthew’s gospel alludes to there being any guards, and his account clearly states that the Sanhedrin did not ask for any until the next day. If Matthew was referring to the following morning, that would leave the body unguarded all night—plenty of time for a small group of men to move a dead body. But the Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown and is, in Jewish reckoning, a new day. Is there any time interval large enough for disciples to get unguarded access to the body?
According to Gospel accounts, Jesus was buried before the Sabbath, in a tomb selected because it was nearby. The women saw where Jesus was laid, and then returned to keep the Sabbath “according to the commandment.” If Jesus was buried before the Sabbath, and if the Jewish religious leaders had anything at all to do at the beginning of the Sabbath, then there could have been a considerable interval of time before they could even go to Pilate to ask for a guard. Add to that whatever interval of time would be needed to gather a guard, explain the mission, gather equipment and supplies, find out where Jesus was buried, and march there.
Moving Jesus’ body would therefore require nothing more than a group of “rogue” disciples, following the burial party, and deciding on the spur of the moment to find Jesus a holier resting place than the one offered by a member of the Council that murdered him, after the other disciples had left to go keep the Sabbath. The guards (if any) could have arrived too late to catch them in the act, and could have sealed an already-empty tomb, without requiring anything more miraculous than bad timing on the Sanhedrin’s part.
Of course, if the “rogue” disciples weren’t deliberately trying to fake a resurrection, wouldn’t people find out? They would have no reason to conceal the fact that they had Jesus’ body, unless perhaps they were afraid of upsetting the apostles, or maybe even experiencing after-the-fact guilt feelings and nagging doubts about whether they did the right thing moving a dead body on the Sabbath. Maybe there could be purely psychosocial reasons why they might keep their actions quiet, even without a desire to fake the Resurrection. But still, people would find out, wouldn’t they? Someone would be bound to talk, sooner or later, if only to get it off their chest, right?
If the disciples did indeed take the body, we would expect there to be widespread reports, later on, of disciples taking the body. And ironically, Matthew himself records that this was indeed the case. There were widespread reports of the disciples taking the body, just as we would expect if this were an ordinary, mundane case of one group of disciples acting without the knowledge or permission of the others to relocate the corpse of Jesus.
Matthew’s whole point, in introducing the story of the guards, seems to be an attempt to provide a Christian counter-story to discredit the Jewish version. Matthew was neither a guard nor a member of the Sanhedrin, nor does he claim to have somehow had this alleged incident reported to him by God or some angel. He simply claims that there were guards, that the guards saw the resurrection, and that they then took bribes to lie about it.
Notice, Matthew offers no evidence to substantiate his accusations, he simply slanders these unknown guards in a way that makes it sound like they’re hiding something. (Sound familiar?) He alone, of all the Evangelists, “improves” the Gospel by adding a new story that provides a plausible explanation for why there are widespread reports that disciples took Jesus’ body. In doing so, however, he unwittingly documents the fact that there were widespread reports that disciples simply moved the body. (And, for an additional irony, Matthew’s story makes these guards the only actual eyewitnesses to what really happened, when Matthew himself was not.)
So we’re all set for Stage One: The Empty Tomb. At this point in our scenario, rogue disciples have not-so-secretly moved the body of Jesus without the knowledge or permission of the other disciples, before the Sanhedrin could conclude their Sabbath duties, make their way to the palace, obtain an audience with Pilate, request a guard, receive permission, walk back to the guard, explain their mission, locate the grave, and post a guard. Sunday morning, when the other disciples return to the tomb, they find it empty, and begin to wonder…
Stay Tuned for Stage Two.