Top 5 Resurrection Myths – #4: The Apostles Stole Christ’s Body

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The next resurrection myth is that the Apostles (or Jesus’ followers) stole Christ’s body. This particular hypothesis has been around longer than any other. The Book of Matthew speaks about this theory as having been created in order for the Jewish leaders to deny the resurrection. They bribed the guards to keep them quiet (which, as an aside, is good evidence that the guards were Roman and not from the temple — otherwise, why would the Jews have to bribe them?):

Mat 28:11-15
Now while they were on their way, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened. 12 And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, 13 and said, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’ 14 “And if this should come to the governor’s ears, we will win him over and keep you out of trouble.” 15 And they took the money and did as they had been instructed; and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day.

It is interesting to note that by the time Matthew was written, this theory had been in circulation for nearly 30 years.

However, there are several problems with this theory:

1. The resurrection is evidenced by more than the empty tomb.

One positive about the stolen body theory is that it does well in assuming the empty tomb. This is a basic fact that most scholars, liberal and conservative, accept. Gary Habermas uses this in his “minimal facts” approach where he evidences the resurrection from a few basic facts that the majority of scholars accept.

But this theory fails today for the same reason it failed in the first century: The resurrection is evidenced by much more than the empty tomb. Of course, the empty tomb is a necessary condition for the event, but the appearances and ascension of Christ are also components that form the bedrock of the resurrection testimony. If the Apostles stole the body, how did they animate it to fool those who say they saw him alive? How did they make this body appear to ascend into heaven? How did they get this body to appear to Paul some years later?

2. The deaths of the Apostles

Tradition tells us that all the Apostles (except John) died a martyr’s death. The traditions for the deaths of James, Peter, and Paul are almost beyond debate. Their deaths make no sense if the stolen body theory is true.  They were killed for being Christians. Their Christianity was based on a belief that Christ arose. However, the stolen body theory would ask us to believe that these men died in a state of their own deception which brought with it no earthly rewards. Rather, they endured terrible suffering, rejection, and martyrdom. Even if one could see an initial motive for this kind of deception (which is far-fetched as well), this motive would have quickly yielded to self-preservation.

Similarly, one would have to explain why these Jews who followed the Mosaic Law found the reason and ability to create such a significant lie about their Messiah, holding to this this position for the rest of their mortal lives.

3. The unacceptability of resurrection

To say that the disciples stole the body is to say that they made up this story. It is not that they were mistaken, or out of their mind (We will deal with those folks later), but that they were being intentionally deceptive.

Now, let me back up for a moment and speak about the unacceptability of both the death and resurrection of Christ.  It was culturally reprehensible at all levels to have a crucified and resurrected Messiah. The Jews certainly were not expecting their Messiah to be killed, especially in this manner. “Cursed is any man who hangs on a tree” (Gal. 3:13). Who would want a cursed man to be their Messiah? The Greeks, on the other hand, would have nothing but disdain for the idea of a bodily resurrection since, from their perspective, the material body was something from which we desire to escape. They were dualists who believed that all of the material world was evil and all of the spiritual world was good. Our goal, then, should be to die and leave our physical material bodies behind (good riddance!). The resurrection of Christ went against all of their ideals.

At that time and place, the Gospel of a crucified and resurrected God was about the dumbest story anyone could ever invent. Normally, when people fabricate stories, they have some degree of marketing potential. However, this story was counterproductive on every level. It was a foolish story. However, this fact actually evidences its historicity. Such a story could not possibly be expected to sell . . . unless it was true.

4. No evidence

Ultimately, when all is said and done, this myth suffers the same fatal blow of every other alternative: there is no evidence. The only reason why such a theory would be accepted is because one does not want to accept the “embarrassment of riches” with regard to the evidence that Christ rose from the dead. But, other than that, there is no reason to even consider this theory.


87 Responses to “Top 5 Resurrection Myths – #4: The Apostles Stole Christ’s Body”

  1. “It is interesting to note that this theory, by the time Matthew was written, had been in circulation for nearly 30 years.”

    Of course aliens exist.

    It says right here in my copy of the script for Men In Black that the government sends out agents to erase the memories of witnesses.

    Why would the authorities concoct a lie to hush up such an extraordinary event as a UFO sighting, unless the event had actually occurred?

  2. Staircase,

    I don’t think there are many folks that believed aliens existed that were systematically martyred for their beliefs as many of the early Christians were.

    Why would you insist on the truthfulness of a belief, knowing it is going to cause your death, if you indeed knew there was no truth to what you kept asserting?

  3. I see the point about using an event on page N of a fictional account as evidence that an event on page N-1 of that same account must have really happened sailed much higher than I’d hoped.

    Which early Christians, specifically, would have 1) been involved in stealing the body and 2) would have escaped martyrdom if they had confessed to their killers that they stole the body, and what is the evidence for that claim?

  4. Stair,

    It looks like you misunderstood what I was saying.

    Why would the early Christians keep insisting that He rose from the dead even if it meant their death if indeed they knew that was a lie?

    Remember, it was not the Christians that said the body was stolen. It was the Jewish leaders and the soldiers guarding the tomb that came up with that story.

  5. MarvinTheMartian August 22, 2013 at 12:21 pm


    Obviously you don’t believe. You obviously want as many people as possible to join with you in your unbelief. Why is that?

  6. Hello Michael, I think you spend too much time debunking myths very few Skeptics hold.

    Generally, their scenario looks like that:

    1) after the death of Jesus the disciples experienced wonderful hallucinations which made them believe he rose from the dead

    2) they didn’t believe in an empty tomb, this aspect was completely irrelevant for them

    3) Paul held the same belief

    4) later writers made up stories about the honorary burial of Jesus and the empty tomb

    These are clearly the targets you should be focusing on.

    Kind regards.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  7. Loth,

    I will certainly deal with the hallucination theory. But you must realize the dynamic nature of these alternatives throughout the years. None of them have ever enjoyed the “majority” position. All of them are , in my honest opinion, increasingly weak and hard to represent in a positive way. As we will see, though I think the hallucination theory may be the one that is in vogue today, it is the weakest of them all.

    If I were to argue against the resurrection, the options are tired and few. That is why there are so many creative ones out there. And no one is really better than another. But if my back was against the wall, I would attempt to distance the Gospels from the events. And then I would argue quite a be for redaction.

    But the weakness of such a story (dying and rising God) who represents us is very hard to explain if pure fabrication is the angle. Erhman’s attempt to present multiple Christianitues my be my path.

    But this is so intellectually beyond feasibility that I could not move too far in this direction with a straight face. Ninty-five percent of canon was stable by the beginning of the second century, and this new Mark manuscript confirms the stability.

  8. Grave robbing was not unheard of in the ancient world. If a tomb was empty, the most likely reason was that someone had stolen the body. Therefore, an empty tomb constitutes evidence that the body was stolen.

    You are correct that a stolen body doesn’t explain the appearances. So what? Neither does it explain why the Cubs haven’t won the World Series in more than a century. Different facts can have different explanations (assuming of course that any of these things other than the futility of being a Cub fan are facts).

    • “You are correct that a stolen body doesn’t explain the appearances. So what? Neither does it explain why the Cubs haven’t won the World Series in more than a century. Different facts can have different explanations (assuming of course that any of these things other than the futility of being a Cub fan are facts).”

      Are you being serious? It is hard to tell. This line of reasoning is about the most bizarre thing I have ever heard. If Christ came back to life certainly one line of evidence would be his appearing. The baseball comparison did not hit it out of the park! :-)

  9. If a hallucination explains the appearance stories and a stolen body explains the empty tomb, then the fact that the stolen body doesn’t explain the appearances is irrelevant. It is entirely possible that different elements of the story have different explanations, isn’t it? I can’t imagine why you would find that confusing.

  10. This kind of logic and questioning does not even come from the Church itself, but unbelief and the dead Judaism that came up with the “story” and myth, that we have already been reminded of in Matt. 28: 11-15! Note that good old filthy-lucre is quite involved!

  11. Vinny,

    Sometimes it is just plain easier to believe the facts as related to us then to find umpteen different explanations to disprove them!

  12. Cherylu,

    Knowledge and experience tell me that the most likely explanation for any story of supernatural occurrences–especially an ancient one–is some combination of common human foibles, e.g., ignorance, superstition, prevarication, wishful thinking, gullibility, exaggeration. I think these are much more likely explanations than a stolen body combined with hallucinations, however, I think the latter is much more likely than a man rising from the dead.

  13. I quote this wee piece for us who “believe” God’s Word!

    ‘Blind unbelief is sure to err, And scan his work in vain; God is his own interpreter, And he will make it plain.’

    Olney Hymns (1779) No. 35, “Light Shining out of Darkness”

    William Cowper (pronounced Cooper)

  14. Vinny,

    How about this idea. Take a good look at the world around you. Then think about the microscopic and subatomic world that we can not see with out eyes. At least without the help of great magnification. Then go to the other extreme and look out into the great expanse of the universe.

    Now if you believe that all of that was created when God spoke it into existence as many Christians believe the Bible teaches, or on the other end of the spectrum you find yourself believing that it all just somehow happened spontaneously with no creator or ultimate designer behind it, then why in the world do you find it so terribly difficult to believe that a man actually rose from the dead?

  15. Surely the “knowledge and experience” of sinful man will always speak in unbelief”! The issue is always “Has God said?” The great adversary’s question! And we who believe, answer: Yes God HAS spoken, and we believe God rather than men, unbelief, or the dark of the demonic! Actually rather simple, but the battle is always in the Word, and in us.. to believe.. the Logos & the Rhema!

  16. And btw, “evidential” apologetics (by itself) will never talk someone into belief! The sinful heart and mind itself, must be broken and defeated! And only the power and truth of God can do this!

    “And Jesus answering said to them, “Ye err, not knowing the scriptures nor the power of God.” (Matt. 22: 29)

  17. @Vinny

    “Knowledge and experience tell me…”

    Silly atheist.

    The idea that similar past experience should imply similar future experience is only valid when past experience tells us things like swooning on the cross cannot happen, or collective hallucinations cannot happen, or rapid mythological development cannot happen.

    But when past experience tells us that corpses do not rise from the grave, or that religious hucksters routinely engage in religious hucksterism, why, you are simply desperately casting about for any excuse to avoid coming face to face with the truth of the Risen Lord.

  18. We can’t prove it.

    But we trust it, by faith, faith that has to come from above. A gift of God through the hearing (the real hearing) of His Word.

  19. Amen there TOA! It ain’t rock science, but the gift of God in faith! NOT my faith either, or belief.. but: ‘The true treasure of the church is the Holy Gospel and the glory and grace of God.’ – Luther

    And the mystical union of Christ with the believer is moral, and faith based, rather than mystical terminology alone or by itself (not negating the latter either), but the regenerating moral exchange of a substitutionary atonement, within Christ and faith.

  20. Possibilities in no way make probabilities. I could say that it is possible that the tomb was empty because the ground opened up and swallowed the body (lots of earthquakes recorded in those days). And the appearances were aliens who can shapeshift.

    The issue is not whether I can come up with creative alternative, but whether I can give positive evidence for any one of them. The floor is open for people to claim bodies were stolen (or any other possibility) to present the evidence.

  21. I had Dr. Habermas at Liberty and he was great. Very good teacher and very approachable man.

  22. You are correct Michael, possibilities are not probabilities. I assess probabilities based on the way I have observed the world to work and based on documented phenomena, i.e., grave robbing and hallucinations are more probable than people coming back from the dead.

    Evidence is the effect from which we infer a cause. Smoldering ashes are evidence of a recent fire rather than a recent rainstorm because knowledge and experience establish that fires are the cause smoldering ashes. An empty tomb is evidence of grave robbing based on knowledge and experience (assuming of course we had any reason in the first place to believe ancient supernatural stories of unknown authorship based on unknown sources which are removed an unknown number of times in an oral tradition from anyone who might actually have had any first hand knowledge of relevant events).

  23. MarvinTheMartian August 23, 2013 at 7:56 am


    Given you obvious adherence to a naturalistic point of view…..

    If you had an experience like Saul (Paul) had on the road to Damascus where the risen Lord appeared directly to you and challenged you to believe and trust in Him, would you bow your knee and submit yourself to His authority or would you conclude using your “knowledge and experience” that you must have suffered from some delusional hallucination?

  24. I suppose I wouldn’t mind the glaring inconsistency (most parsimonious explanation based on prior experience for thee, but not for me) so much, if it were not invariably coupled with accusations of intellectual dishonesty.

    Atheists desperately scramble to protect their metaphysical dogma, but it is only the apologist — the fundamentalist, inerrantist apologist! — who has the open mind to follow the evidence where it leads, the true champion of free inquiry.

    Why are you allowed to draw on past experience to conclude swooning is not plausible, or body-snatching is not plausible, or dying-for-a-lie is not plausible, or rapid accumulation of myth and legend is not plausible, but I am accused of being intellectually dishonest when I draw on past experience to conclude that reanimated corpses are implausible?

  25. MTM,

    It is not a matter of adhering to a naturalistic point of view. It is a matter of employing methodological naturalism to make sense of the world in which I find myself.

    If the risen Lord appeared to me directly, that would certainly change the base of knowledge and experience against which I evaluate evidence. I might conclude that I was suffering from a hallucination, but I might also conclude that it gave me sufficient reason to bow my knee and submit to his authority. However, I couldn’t conclude that my experience gave anyone else reason to bow his or her knee and submit.

  26. As I have said, my father (RIP) was a scientist and physicist, but as he always said.. evidence was as the scientific never a 100 %. We can even see this in math: do two parallel-lines meet in infinity? We think so, but don’t really know for certain?

    Thank God that Judeo-Christianity is not really based upon scientific evidence, in itself, but in the great doctrine of God, God’s Revelation!

  27. And btw, even with “knowledge and experience”, we can never escape the human element in the existential import. We can note that in the predicate calculus the universal quantification (V x) (Fx -Gx) has no existential import, since it is true when nothing is F.

  28. Btw, for our philosophical thinkers, see the “neo-Calvinist” Vern Poythress’s book this year (2013), called ‘Logic, A God-Centered Approach to the Foundation of Western Thought.’ This might become a classic in the field? (733 pages) We should note too Poythress has both a B.S. in Mathematics and too a Ph.D. of the same (Math) from Harvard. Poythress views scientific law as a form of the word of God. Note however, but a “form”!

  29. Many religions claim to based on divine revelation Father Robert, but I cannot imagine why God would want me to spend my life trying to guess which one really is rather than using the mind with which He endowed me to make sense of the world as best I can. I have found that I can live quite well without being 100% certain about things.

  30. But when we speak of such things, we must always in science speak of probability. And in Christianity, of course of something of the same, but always with faith. We will never escape “Faith” when looking at the things and doctrine of God! And it is here that the Holy Scripture is always its own “presupposition”, and authority & truth!

  31. @Vinny: The great thing about Judeo-Christianity, is that God always asks us to use our mind with our faith! As Paul could say: “faith, hope, love, these three” (1 Cor. 13: 13).

  32. And indeed no “guessing” with God the Almighty! ;)

  33. Sure Father Robert. He wants me to use my mind, unless of course, I reach the wrong conclusion in which case I suffer for all eternity.

  34. @vinny: Actually, you only “think” you use your own mind, in the case of those who will loose God forever, it appears so, but the reality is, God has left you to your own desire, which is always apart from God… this is the great nature of “sin”, my own will apart from God! And I/We actually like it this way! But, only GOD In Christ will be able to show us “ourselves”!

  35. Btw Vinny: If you read this P&P Blog, many here are Calvinists! (Though surely not all who comment of course). Note, I am myself a convinced “neo”-Calvinist, I am sure, as it appears, this is quite foreign to you perhaps? Indeed God holds the sinner responsible, but sinful man is never free! Even the “redeemed” man/person still has a sinful willfulness, (Rom. 7: 13-25), though he is surely “regenerate” as “In Christ”, (Rom. 8: 1-13, etc.)

  36. Fr. Robert,

    I’m sure you “think” that makes “sense,” but if I cannot know whether or not I’m actually using my mind, then I cannot know anything and neither can you.

  37. Oh yes I can! Even in the French mathematician Rene Descartes (the so-called founding father of modern philosophy) could write: ‘I think therefore I am.’ Here again is that human responsibility, which though not fully free, still makes me quite responsible, and especially before God! The point of human certainty is in my own awareness of my own self… the first person twist of today’s so-called modern man!

  38. If Descartes could know that he was using his mind to think, then I can, too.

  39. Indeed, that is my point also! But, just “thinking” alone does not make you free or correct. But, it is the first place to start! :)

  40. And btw, THIS was the great challenge of John Calvin’s theology! Think, reason.. and believe God and His word & revelation!

  41. No, Fr. Robert. Your point was that I only thought that I was using my mind. That’s why God is justified in frying me for all eternity when I reach a conclusion that He didn’t like.

  42. @ Vinny: That’s funny mate, and really your own conclusion, because I was really trying to make the points I spoke of, man is responsible.. but never free fully in this life, unless and until he meets “Christ Jesus”! And even then he is in a spiritual battle thereafter, in perseverance. But thankfully it is ‘In Christ’, if he is regenerate. The question thus becomes for you – and all of us – have I met this “Christ Jesus” (biblically, theologically and redemptively?)

    And to meet Christ is as Melanchthon put the matter in a classic sentence: “To know Christ is to know His benefits.” Hopefully some contemporary theology is returning to this! :)

  43. And btw, it is sad when a person or people think we so-called “Calvinists”, just want to see the reprobate fried! This is hardly true of my neo-Calvinist thoughts and thinking! See btw too, the one time Anglican priest/presbyter: Philip Edgcumbe Hughes (passed in the late 90’s) profound book: The True Image, The Origin And Destiny Of Man In Christ, (1989, WM. B. Eerdmans/IVP, England). Hughes was always quite a Reformed Anglican, but held to some kind of doctrine of annihilation of the lost souls, of the non-elect.

    Generally I hold to the position, as the pagan Plato, that the soul of man cannot undergo any annihilation. But indeed perhaps lost men/man, never have become an eternal soul or spirit? God alone made all men/man, and God alone can destroy men and man, whom HE pleases! But this is based perhaps upon men and souls who simply never become “immortal”? But this is not a works righteousness, as the doctrine of God’s Infralapsarianism for the lost, GOD leaves them in their sin, and passes over them! For finally, GOD is really Sovereign, and has His eternal purpose!

  44. *Hughes died in 1990 (1915-90)

  45. Fr. Robert,

    What I find sad is the mental gymnastics that you need to perform in order alleviate the cognitive dissonance created by the idea that a loving and merciful God would sentence his creatures to eternal torment.

  46. @Vinny: There is no real mental gymnastics to simply believing God’s Word! GOD is both Holy & Just, as well as Merciful! And yes.. always quite Sovereign! WE will all get our day “in court”, you can argue your case before HIM then! But WE are all guilty sinners! Indeed that whole concept of SIN, alone only known by the depth of God, cost the Father His Beloved Son… death and eternal judgment on the Cross! YES, we better believe in the cost of sin! We can see that reality all around us in this the fallen world!

    “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes the judgment.” (Heb. 9: 27) “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 6: 23) Indeed life or death, and eternally! Eternal death (the second death), or eternal life? THIS is the biblical revelation!

  47. MarvinTheMartian August 24, 2013 at 9:51 am


    You make the illogical conclusion that God’s loving and merciful nature somehow negates his righteous standard. But His nature includes both equally, which is what makes the crucifixion of Christ the seminal event in the history of humanity.

    In that one event, God demonstrated both His righteousness and His mercy, fully and completely. His righteousness was fulfilled via the substitutionary atonement of Christ. This means that Christ on the cross was bearing the due penalty for Sin (i.e. the sinful nature we all have) which we ALL deserve. The cross didn’t just accomplish the divine judgment of Sin, but it also allows for the righteous life that Christ lived to then applied to those who trust in Him. This is why the cross of Christ is called the gospel, it is very good news!

    When Christ was bearing our Sin and enduring the wrath of God through the Passion, this simultaneously (and confoundedly) demonstrates God’s mercy. For our sinfulness deserves punishment (and hell). But God poured out His wrath towards Sin upon His only begotten Son (the completely innocent Lamb of God) so that those who believe can then be shown mercy and have forgiveness of their sin. This all occurs by faith, and it is a mystery that the natural intellect of man cannot fathom.

    Vinny, God does not delight in sentencing people to hell. He does not want any to perish, but for all to come to repentance. But He did not make us automatons devoid of free will. To escape hell, you must agree with God that your Sin (aka rebellion against God) is an affront to Him, and you must accept by faith what Christ did for all who would trust in Him. Notice that the cross isn’t for everyone. It doesn’t get magically applied to you if you reject it or don’t feel compelled by the “available evidence”. The sacrifice of Christ (and the mercy/forgiveness that comes with it) is only for those who bow the knee and believe on His name for their salvation. I pray that you come to believe.

  48. Fr. Robert,

    If it was simply a matter of “believing God’s Word,” you wouldn’t be trying to figure out whether lost men ever have eternal souls. You would have no need of words like “infralapsarianism.”


    If my eternal destiny depends on my willingness to embrace a concept of God which is contrary to any understanding I have of justice, compassion, and mercy, based on a standard of evidence which is contrary to my reason, why did He ever give me a mind with which to think?

  49. @Vinny: Surely the basics of God’s sovereign grace & mercy are before us, whether we “understand” it or not. And doing “theology” (the study of the great doctrine of God) is always hard work! But indeed “believing” God is always the first prerequisite! And btw mate, you are surely on your “horse” running from God! So run baby run! But if God wants you? HE will get You (the Hound of Heaven!) Even if it appears now, that you don’t really want Him! I given you the biblical measure of the simple Gospel! ;)

  50. Fr. Robert,

    If an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God exists, he is so far beyond my comprehension that for me to suppose that I can know anything “basic” about him strikes me as silly. What I can do is use the gift of reason that He has given me to make the most sense I can of the world in which He has placed me.

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