Conrad Gempf: 5th Sparrow

April 2001
The body-snatchers
Previous 5th Sparrows

Comment on this column MATTHEW SOMEHOW got hold of an interesting behind-the-scenes interchange. On Easter morning, the guards fled from the tomb at the appearance of the angel (Matthew 28:4).

The chief priests devised a scheme to explain the mysterious disappearance of Jesus. They bribed the guards to claim that the disciples stole the body, a claim which Matthew himself tells us was still circulating in his day and which we know to have been still current in the 2nd century (according to the early Church writer, Justin Martyr).

Matthew probably heard of this incident through some member of the Jewish Sanhedrin who later became a Christian. It is a curious story for a Gospel writer to include. The fact that the "grave robbery" explanation of the empty tomb was so very popular means that we are on very certain ground, historically, in asserting that whatever the explanation, the tomb was empty.

It is one thing to have followers of Jesus claiming that the resurrection happened – they would be expected to say that. But if the opponents are known to have resorted to an explanation for the empty tomb, that's a different matter. No such elaborate explanation would be needed if the tomb were still intact and Jesus still buried.

THE FACT THAT one of the Church's accepted and authoritative documents contains this natural explanation must make it very likely indeed that the explanation was false. For if Jesus was not raised, then the early Christians were faking it. Some skeptics have argued that they faked it in good faith. In their view, the disciples regarded Jesus as "raised from the dead" in some mystical, insubstantial way, even though the physical body that they stole was lifeless.

But surely, whether they were faking it in good faith or in bad, no Church operating along those lines would permit – much less canonize – a Gospel that contained this story which blew the whistle on a grave robbery, if such a robbery did, in fact, happen. The Church didn't need Matthew's Gospel. It could easily have settled with just Mark, Luke and John.

Purely considered on scientific historian's grounds, the best reconstruction of events must be that the tomb was empty and the disciples did not steal the body. We can also be certain that neither the Jewish authorities nor the Romans stole it, either. Even leaving aside the direct claims of the Christians, there is, in fact, only one explanation that accords with all of the evidence.

Dr Conrad Gempf is a lecturer in New Testament at London Bible College. He also writes for and edits the monthly webzine there.

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