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Pharisees to the Rescue!

Two very different strategic moves sequentially ensured a credible belief in Jesus's resurrection.
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Two critical situations arose shortly after the death of Jesus on the cross. Timely action, including appeals to Pilate, was needed to ensure a plausible account of the resurrection. Pharisees accomplished both, but the similarities end there because one action manifested courage and belief while the other stemmed from mistaken fear and disbelief. In very different ways, these two strategic moves sequentially ensured a credible belief in Jesus’s resurrection.

You have probably guessed the first one of this pair: Joseph ensuring the burial of Jesus’ corpse. The second is less obvious but equally important: assigning a detachment of soldiers to seal and guard the tomb.

Theological Context

The precepts and doctrines of Biblical Christianity, as rational and sensible as they are, are not the core or basis of our belief. The bodily resurrection of Jesus is central and essential to Christian faith. Our Statement of Faith records some of the theological particulars, but the basis of all of them is the validity of “God raised Jesus from the dead.” 

The resurrection of Jesus is a historical event, not a theological doctrine. Not a subject for proof texts or logic. The resurrection must have convincing historical evidence. Any report of a dead person subsequently being declared alive you would skeptically receive. Indeed, you would not accept as true any news report of a person dead for three days, revived to life. 

incredible occurrences needs credible evidence

First-century men and women who accepted the physical resurrection of Jesus had a different challenge to belief than we do today. For those who saw the empty tomb and the resurrected Christ, their challenge was: “Can we believe our eyes?” For those who heard the testimony and preaching of these witnesses, it was: “Can we believe what these people are preaching?” For everyone after the apostolic age and the completion of the written Scriptures, the challenge has been: “Can we believe what we read?” 

A religion based on an incredible occurrence needs credible evidence and documentation if believers of all times and places can and will confidently devote themselves to the implications of their belief. 

Necessary Evidence of a Resurrection

How does one provide adequate evidence that a dead person has become alive again? The most straightforward strategy would be to have the deceased person publicly appear. People would recognize the person and so acknowledge that a resurrection indeed occurred. Jesus did this, as reported by Paul (I Corinthians 15:3-7).

This strategy only works if it meets two criteria. First, it must be demonstrated that the deceased had actually died, was stone-cold dead. You can’t have someone fake a death, lapse into a coma, or disappear for a while, and then come back and claim he has risen from the dead. That won’t convince anyone. Evidence of death is mandatory.

Second, you have to have solid proof that the revived person is indeed the very same person as the deceased, not a double or someone who looks enough like the deceased to pull off a “switcheroo” somewhere between the death and the time of resurrection. 

Substantiating the outlandish claim that Jesus was alive again required these two points of verification: that Jesus was indeed dead, and the resurrected person claiming to be Jesus was indeed him. I refer to these as the death and identity criteria.

Evidence for Death and Identity

With this evidential framework in mind, we can now examine the two critical functions that Pharisees performed. We’ll look at the burial first. Placing the body in a tomb was necessary to demonstrate both criteria. The faithful act of one man, Joseph of Arimathea, ensured that the burial took place. Joseph “took courage” and asked Pilate for custody of Jesus’s body. Along with Nicodemus, he prepared the body for burial and placed it in Joseph’s own tomb. 

These men were Pharisees of high rank, likely two of the most influential and powerful Pharisees at the time: Joseph, on account of his wealth and status, “a respected member of the council” (Mark 15:43), and Nicodemus, because he was “a ruler of the Jews” and “the teacher of Israel.” (John 3:1, 10)

Although both have been maligned for hiding their discipleship for fear of losing their status and being excommunicated, they stood up when needed. They utterly deplored their Pharisee colleagues’ behavior—specifically, their machinating of Jesus’ arrest and farcical trial (Luke 23:51, John 7:50-51). Jesus’s deportment during those most distressing hours made it clear to Joseph and Nicodemus where their allegiance now lay. 

No one from Jesus’s close circle rose to see to his burial—no one among the eleven, his family, nor the group of women that had seen so often to his needs. Mary, Martha, Lazarus—where were they? Had they not heard in Bethany what had transpired in Jerusalem? 

Was it because none of his close followers had funds for a burial? Or were their hearts so shattered they didn’t even think of tending to the body? Did they lack the social status to request the body from Pilate? Were they afraid to show themselves as Jesus’s associates, in a sense denying their Lord as did Peter just the night before? Or was it something else? 

One thing we do know. The disciples had no understanding of what was to transpire within three days. On several occasions, Jesus told them plainly what was awaiting him: arrest, torture, death, and resurrection. But this straightforward talk was incomprehensible to them. Mark 9:31-32, Luke 9:44-45, and Luke 18:31-34 affirm the disciples’ veiled condition.

Their messianic hopes were shattered, and their grief over the murder of their dear friend and teacher was incalculable. If any of them were to somehow see to Jesus’s burial, it would have been, in their mind, making a permanent interment.

Not so for our two heroes, Joseph and Nicodemus. Their motivation for the entombment was their knowledge of and belief in the resurrection and, apparently, the immediate establishment of the Kingdom (Mark 15:43). They knew God could bring Jesus back to life again even if his body was cast into the flames of the Valley of Hinnom. Still, they were not going to allow that repulsive scenario to happen. Their Lord was going to walk out of a tomb like Lazarus. 

Aside from decency and respect, Joseph likely reckoned that the burial was essential for both of the evidential criteria of resurrection. If so, he had foresight commensurate with his faith. If not, he would later reflect on the astounding hand of providence that placed all the pieces in order. Either way, the body of Jesus was wrapped, spiced, and laid in Joseph’s virgin tomb (John 19:38-40; Matthew 27:59-60). 

The Worst Tactical Blunder Ever

As Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were lovingly and faithfully preparing Jesus for burial, their unbelieving Pharisee cohorts were conferring among themselves on how to prevent a possible hoax. The Pharisees worried that the disciples would expect a resurrection on the third day, and when that didn’t happen, they would come at night to remove Jesus’s body.

The next day, they would invite all to see the empty tomb as evidence of the resurrection (Matthew 27:62-66), “and the last hoax would be greater than the first.” The Pharisees’ assumptions were completely wrong, of course, and their attempt to prevent a hoax actually ensured the best evidence for the resurrection!

Where did the Pharisees go off the rails? First, they mistakenly assumed the disciples planned on a third-day resurrection. Ironically, the Pharisees remembered Jesus saying this (although the gospels do not record that he ever said it in their hearing),1 but this fact was, as noted above, hidden from the disciples. They could not have attempted to fake something they weren’t ever aware could actually happen.

Second, the Pharisees greatly erred on their estimation of the disciples’ character. Even if the disciples were still unsure as to what “rise again on the third day” meant, they weren’t the kind who would fake a resurrection. More likely, they were all in hiding those few days, fearful of what might come next. 

Third, did they really think his disciples would gain anything by faking a resurrection? Jesus’ preaching was about giving up all to follow him. Would anyone give up all to follow their own hoax? 

It was absurd of the Pharisees to think that even if the disciples did remove Jesus’s body and leave an empty tomb, this would convince anyone of a resurrection. They needed only demand to see Jesus alive— “Show us that he’s alive, not that you took his corpse away.” It’s hard to imagine this group of wise men being so utterly shallow on this matter. 

However thin their reasoning was, God’s hand was in this. The Pharisees appealed to Pilate to cooperate with their plan to stop something that would never have happened.

With a guard of soldiers to prevent disciples from coming by night and sealing the tomb to boot, the Pharisees had the situation under control. A real resurrection would certainly not happen, and if the disciples came to fake a resurrection, that could be squelched. If they hadn’t come, then they would have been finished anyway, and there was nothing to be concerned about. 

At this point, the greatest tactical blunder in the history of anything meets with the greatest of ironies. During the night, with no one else present to witness the miracle, the angels descended from heaven, opened the sealed tomb, and brought out the risen Jesus. Matthew’s account makes it clear that when the women arrived at the tomb early Sunday morning, the resurrection had already taken place.

No one but the band of Roman soldiers, unwitting witnesses for sure, saw this! Had they not been there, the story that the disciples came by night and stole the body would have been spread and believed by most people. The Pharisees hung themselves on their own rope!

The guard could not avoid reporting what happened and could not be other than convincing because of the extraordinary visibility, assuming bright lights were involved. Perhaps if there had been only one guard on duty, he could have been dismissed as hallucinating, but this unit probably numbered sixteen to twenty-four. 

This scenario is so remarkable, yet it reads with convincing verisimilitude. The fearful Pharisees post a guard, and there are no disciples in the area. God performed exactly what Jesus said He would, and the only witnesses were entirely reliable because they had every reason not to believe what they saw. And what they saw confirmed both evidential criteria: death and identity.

Without a burial site (the act of faith) there would be nothing to guard, and without a guard (the act of unfaith), there would be no reliable witnesses. Pharisees to the rescue, indeed!

Lessons Learned

  1. Beware of stereotypes—some Pharisees, perhaps many, became believers.
  2. Trust God—Jesus had no control over these critical aspects of evidence for his resurrection. In life, he was always in control of every situation. Now, he was completely in his Father’s hands.
  3. Providential activity can be obscure. It might look like ordinary human affairs, but God designs the necessary outcomes. 

David Levin,
Denver Ecclesia, CO

  1. They did hear Jesus when he metaphorically spoke of raising the Temple in three days (John 2:19-21), but it’s hard to imagine that from this alone, they deduced he spoke of his resurrection on the third day.
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God’s word and will, not man’s, is supreme and will prevail. Trust it, dear brothers and sisters.
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