In this month’s installement, I will continue with two more lines of evidence pointing to the literal, historical resurrection of Jesus. These two studies take us back into a realm often neglected in these apologetics writings, that is, our familiar modes of Bible study. Readers who have lamented the pages upon pages of secular arguments in the articles thus far are now rewarded for their patience.
By way of reminder, resurrection relates to the exclusivity issue in that, as a historical event, the resurrection of Jesus gives us an objective basis for religion. From that basis we can derive the fundamental theological doctrines that define Biblical faith.
The two studies that comprise this article develop two related specific events in the resurrection drama, namely, Joseph of Arimathea taking responsibility to bury the Lord’s body, and the posting of the guard at the request of the Jewish authorities. These two events, the burial and the posting of the guard, were not givens, though they were both seemingly ordinary and routine events. They bear close investigation as to why they even happened, for (in human terms) they could just as easily not have taken place at all. However, that would have left us lacking two strategically necessary evidences for the resurrection. Their “understatedness” shows how easily we can overlook and take for granted seemingly ordinary events that are providential. (Numbering continues from last month.)
4. The Disciples, Joseph of Arimathea, and the Necessary Burial of Jesus
How would you go about proving a resurrection if you didn’t have an empty tomb? If Joseph had not intervened and entreated Pilate for the Lord’s body to inter it, the body would have been burnt in theValley ofHinnom (ge’henna), and the difficulty of proving a resurrection would have increased manifold. How would the narrative play out if the body were dumped in the fires of Gehenna? Who would post a guard there? What would they protect? Who would come to anoint a charred or disintegrated body? What stone would be rolled away? The whole physical setting of the resurrection becomes non-existent, and so do the participants in the early morning drama of the discovered empty tomb. God could have raised Jesus from ashes, and he still would have appeared to the women and the disciples, and would have taught them for forty days. But how would the disciples have proven his existence to the rest of the world?
The claim of resurrection from a tomb was falsifiable; that is, it could have been proven false by going to the tomb, showing that it was still sealed, opening it, and finding the body.1 Because a resurrection from Hinnom could not be falsifiable (that is, proven to be wrong by producing the body), it could therefore also not serve as an authentic witness. Thus, by preaching a Jesus resurrected from a guarded, sealed tomb, the disciples put their story on the line: “We preach Jesus risen from the dead. As for David, his tomb is still with us, but go to the tomb of Jesus and you will find no body (to fill out the implication of Peter’s statement recorded in Acts 2:29).” Peter also claimed that Jesus’ body neither saw corruption nor was abandoned in hades (the grave). Had his body been tossed into the fires of Hinnom, Peter could not have said that, for Jesus would have seen corruption in gehenna, not incorruption from his brief sleep in the hades of Joseph’s tomb. Moreover, Paul wrote to the Corinthians “that he was buried, and that he rose again on the third day, according to the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:4). Resurrection from the grave was the point at stake.
Without a tomb we lack a place wherein to locate both the witnesses and the body. Evidence for the resurrection centers on an empty tomb guarded by soldiers and visited by the women and the disciples. Other explanations of the empty tomb (they went to the wrong tomb, Joseph moved the body, the disciples took the body, Jesus was not really dead but only severely wounded and then he revived in the tomb) all presuppose and acknowledge an empty tomb. These alternative explanations arose because even the critics conceded the tomb was empty.2
He might have been an extraordinary prophet or teacher, but if he lay in the tomb after three days, Jesus could not have been the Messiah. Moreover, any claim that he had arisen would go nowhere: the Jewish authorities need only to open the tomb and display his body. End of story; no Christianity develops. Morison observes that the Christian movement arose in Jerusalem, and such would have been impossible had Jesus remained buried right there, under their very noses!3Having the corpse of their alleged leader interred in the very city where they proclaimed his resurrection would unquestionably lead to a quick dismissal of the disciples’ claims.
Why Didn’t the Disciples Bury Jesus?
Have you ever wondered why the disciples didn’t bury their Lord? Why was it Joseph of Arimathea who came to the rescue, so to speak, to provide not only a service of kindness and compassion, but also a necessary step in making the resurrection a believable occurrence? Remember, if the body of Jesus lay not in the tomb, but rather met corruption and oblivion via Gehenna’s fire, then we would lack that vital constituent: an empty tomb, known to have been sealed and guarded. Had the disciples paraded about proclaiming that they had seen Jesus alive again after his body perished unceremoniously in a common garbage dump, there would be no way of proving it one way or the other to anyone else. Testify as they might, the disciples would have no evidence to support their fervid claim that their crucified leader had experienced a resurrection.
Let’s take another look at these two possible scenarios that could have unfolded after the crucifixion: either Jesus is buried, or he isn’t. If the body does go into a tomb, we have the additional possibility of closing the tomb with a large stone, and then sealing it. Further, we can also guard the site to prevent anyone from opening the tomb and removing the body. In fact, all of these precautions did occur in the case of Jesus’ burial. On the other hand, if the body perishes in the open fires of Gehenna, we have no body, no tomb, and no guard. No one could prove anything about what might have happened to the body — it was burnt, stolen, buried, whatever.
In either case, a claim could be made that Jesus became alive again, but which of the above options makes for a more believable account? One with no witnesses and no proven site of the alleged miracle, or a resurrection from a site that had been specially prepared against a staged resurrection? Moreover, in the case of the non-burial option, the claims of resurrection would come only from the disciples, to whom the risen Jesus appeared (for he still would have done so) — and they were obviously biased in favor of that outcome. Who would believe them? In the case of the tomb burial, it was the guards’ report, not the disciples’ claims, that broke loose uponJerusalemthat Sunday morning, and certainly the soldiers weren’t predisposed to believe in a resurrection. This burial scenario clearly bests the non-burial scenario for credibility. Thus, a burial was necessary, but who would perform it?
The key players in the drama, after Jesus had expired mercifully quickly onCalvary’s rude cross, became Joseph of Arimathea, who would provide both the tomb and burial service, and the aforementioned Jewish authorities whose unjustified fears of a body theft led them to seal the tomb and post the guard. Resurrection could be falsified only if the body were preserved and secured. When the resurrection occurred, it was much easier to demonstrate as valid: a place, a sealed tomb, a guarded and secured tomb — but no body inside.
Thus a tomb was necessary, and also someone “to handle the arrangements”, as we would say today. I started off this section by asking the question, “Why didn’t the disciples bury the body of Jesus?” Did they not think that it would come to pass that they would need to perform this service? Doubtless events would transpire very quickly for them. On Thursday, their teacher is holding discourse in the temple as usual. It is Passover time. He dines with them, and tells them things they don’t understand about what is about to happen. His behavior might have been odd, and his demeanor more strained than they had ever seen him. But no one of them could have seen this coming. They go out to the Mount of Olives. They sleep; he prays. Suddenly, a mob appears. They take Jesus away. Within about 15 hours, he is crucified. The disciples, completely undone by this “lynching”, take flight, in fear for their own lives. Only Peter and John, apparently, remain inJerusalem, and Peter does his best to avoid association with Jesus (Luke22:54-60). Even had they reconvened, or thought that after the crucifixion it might be a good idea to ask for his body and do it just service, not one of the twelve would have had the boldness to go to Pilate as did Joseph.
Why didn’t Jesus, in any of his prophecies about his own death and resurrection, instruct them to bury his body? He said he would be put to death and then rise again, but he never told them that they must see to his burial, for if his body wasn’t properly interred then it would be much harder to prove the resurrection. Perhaps he knew that this instruction would fall on deaf ears, as did the rest of his prophecy (Luke18:31-34). Yet, burial remained essential to the plan. How could Jesus ensure that it would happen? Did he just trust that his Father would see to this matter somehow?
Joseph of Arimathea was the man of the hour, the man who came forward and provided the crucial link at the only time the Lord Jesus was ever at someone’s mercy. Never in his ministry did Jesus need to rely on anyone’s help or assistance in overcoming the foils of his enemies. But now the Lord lay asleep in death; he had no power whatsoever. Joseph of Arimathea would be his savior’s savior.
Joseph went boldly to Pilate, and Pilate granted permission for the burial. He then went to the site of the cross and watched with heart-in-throat grief as the Roman soldiers lowered the now painless but horribly disfigured body from the cross. Joseph took the body (probably draped on his donkey) toGethsemane, to the place of his own tomb, and, with the help of Nicodemus (John19:39), cleansed the wounds, wrapped the body, laid it to rest, and finally rolled the great stone into place.
Did Joseph believe in the resurrection? Likely. Did he realize that a burial was necessary to prove the resurrection? I think we can answer the question why the disciples didn’t come forth to claim Jesus’ body and bury it, but we can’t know what went through Joseph’s mind that Friday afternoon. We might, however, have a clue as to what compelled him to treat the body of Jesus with Samaritan-like compassion.
The Good Samaritan
We can possibly identify Joseph of Arimathea as that “certain lawyer” who tested Jesus with the question, “Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25). In the ensuing parable, Jesus spoke of a man who fell among thieves, was stripped of his raiment, wounded, and left for dead. Each detail coincides with events of the crucifixion. Did Joseph, upon seeing Jesus, stripped, wounded, left for dead among thieves, remember this parable? Did the moral “Go, and do likewise” ring in his heart with special meaning? Is that why he, like the Samaritan in the parable, put Jesus on his own ass, washed the wounds, wrapped him in a clean linen, and took him to the “inn”, which, of course, was Joseph’s own tomb? Was this the cryptic way in which the Lord, knowing Joseph’s good heart and the disciple’s timorousness, planned for his own burial? Admittedly, it’s speculation of the first order, but why not? The details of the parable fit, it’s only in Luke, and Luke has the most information about Joseph (Luke23:50-53). Did the answer so impress the lawyer that it eventually led to his becoming a disciple? Was this man Joseph of Arimathea so astute that the Lord Jesus could ensure the necessity of his own burial by telling a parable with a decidedly different primary meaning?
We cannot underestimate the absolute necessity of a tomb burial for proving the resurrection and demonstrating to all history that the resurrection stands on firm ground. Yet, Jesus made no provision for his burial, nor could the disciples have rendered this service.4 This vital, pivotal moment in all of human affairs fell straight upon the courage of Joseph of Arimathea, one of the truly great heroes of the Bible, a man to whom the Lord Jesus in the Kingdom will acknowledge his personal indebtedness.
5. The Witness of the Guards
Matthew’s account of the guards (Matt. 27:62-66, 28:11-15) adds an element of verisimilitude and another critical item of evidence. Yet, Matthew does not even mention its importance. The entire account is completely understated, and gives no hint whatsoever of fabrication. The piece of evidence is the unwitting witness of the guards. Let’s see why Matthew recorded what we will call the “setting of the guard narrative.”
This account is peculiar to Matthew. The notable features include, first of all, that the Jewish authorities feared a nocturnal sortie by the disciples, who would remove the body and then proclaim the resurrection. This rings so true. These leaders once again failed to comprehend the situation. They miscalculated the disciples’ dullness concerning Jesus’ repeated prophecies of his resurrection (e.g., Matt.16:22; Luke18:34). The disciples, fearing that all was lost and that their lives could well be in danger, had fled or gone into hiding. The Pharisee and Sadducee leaders, though they heard with their ears and had the facts right, did not hear with their hearts. They accounted Jesus’ sayings as so much deception.
Bowing to their fears, they requested that Pilate give them a guard. The guard might have been a Roman guard assigned to the Jewish leaders’ use to keep order during the crowded conditions in Jerusalemowing to the Passover festival. Another possibility is that Pilate said to them, in effect, “You already have your guard…” — that is, the temple guard. “Do what you want. Don’t bother me anymore with this Jesus business; it has given me enough grief already.” It seems the threat of punishment implies the guard must have been Roman, but whoever comprised the guard is immaterial to the key role they played. Whether Roman soldiers or the Jewish temple guard, they were not disciples, and they would have easily dispelled any attempt of the disciples to pull off an exhumation.
The critical point is this: at the very moment of the resurrection, when the angel(s) came to free the Lord Jesus from the pangs of death, the soldiers were the only witnesses. In their mistaken fear that the disciples would steal the body, the Jewish leaders actually provided a key factor in proving the resurrection, for they had provided witnesses to the event! Had they not set the guard, then it would have been possible to spread the rumor that “the disciples came by night and stole the body.” This rumor would have been irrefutable, because no one was there to say it didn’t happen. But in this all-too-real narrative, the fearful Jewish leadership posted men who, while supposedly preventing the possibility of a resurrection story, in fact became the verifying witnesses to the event. Irony of ironies!
We can make three points about this witness. One, they could affirm that no one came to attempt a disinterment. Two, they would have seen the very opening of the tomb. Three, they had no vested interest in the resurrection. Most probably, and especially if they were the temple guard, they would have been anti-Jesus and anti-resurrection. That is, they were unwitting witnesses, and therefore their testimony would be reckoned all the more valid. If the disciples had started a rumor that the Lord had been raised, that could have been dismissed as wishful thinking. But it was the report of the guard that started the message!
By Sunday morning, not only would rumors abound throughout the city of an empty tomb, but anyone who looked into the matter would know that it could not have been the work of the disciples, for the guard would have repelled them. Besides, the disciples were nowhere to be found. Probably the last people inJerusalemone would have expected to find at the tomb that night would have been the disciples, so despondent and fearful were they because of their leader’s execution.
Meanwhile, the guard returned to the chief priests and told them “all the things that were done” (Matt. 28:11). That is, they told them plainly what happened: angelic activity, and an earthquake to boot, had opened the tomb and Jesus had come out alive. The hard-hearted priests took counsel with the equally refractory elders and came up with the now famous bribe story. This patently bogus tale did little to stop the onrush of belief during the upcoming months and years.
So the posted guard provided what would ultimately stand as an unimpeachable witness to the reality of the resurrection. They were there, they saw it happen, they were not disciples, they reported the facts to the Jewish leaders, and they provided the proof that the disciples could not have done. Ironically, the Jewish authorities contributed significantly to proving the very circumstance they had wanted so dearly to negate! They would have been far better off not sending a guard. That way, they could have claimed that the disciples came by night and stole the body, and no one could prove them wrong! However, with their guard in place, we had a situation wherein resurrection could be falsified, that is, proven to be non-occurrent, if in fact it didn’t happen.
Thank you, chief priests and Pharisees. For all your perfidious opposition to the Lord Jesus, for all your egregious iniquity in putting him to ignominious death, you yet located for yourselves a place in history by unnecessarily (for there was absolutely no threat of theft by the disciples) providing the means by which Jerusalem of old could firmly believe Peter and the others when they proclaimed, “This Jesus you put to death by the hands of wicked men, but God raised him from the dead” (Acts 2:23,24).
To which we say, “Amen.”
Next: A few more lines of evidence for the resurrection.
David Levin, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
1 Falsifiability does not mean being false or wrong. It is an epistemological [i.e., pertaining to the study of how knowledge is acquired] term that refers to the scope of a claim or statement about an observed state of affairs. If we assert, “All ducks swim,” we make a claim that is falsifiable: it can potentially be proven wrong if someone finds a non-swimming duck. An observation from nature or experimental science that can be overturned by contrary evidence is falsifiable, and has great strength if no such contrary evidence arises. The application of falsifiability to the resurrection lies in the claim that “Jesus rose from a guarded, sealed, closed tomb” is falsifiable; it could be proved wrong by locating the body. The statement, “Jesus rose from the ash heaps of Hinnom” could not be falsified, as there would be no corpse that could be produced. It is therefore a much weaker statement. Without the falsifiability criterion, even true claims remain in the weaker category of speculation.
2 Not all alternate explanations concede the empty tomb. One explanation championed recently would have us accept that the disciples suffered a massive common hallucination. More on this scheduled for next month.
3 Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone? (London: Faber and Faber, 1930), pp. 112-115,166-168. This classic investigation into the historical case for the resurrection, written by a skeptical lawyer, is well worth reading.
4 Had this story been legendary, it would have been the disciples who buried Jesus, with great pomp, in a grave that doubtless would have become a shrine.