If Jesus Rose from the Dead, then (#15) He Must Have Been Dead and Buried

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For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures… 1 Corinthians 15:3-4

Mythicists and skeptics attempt to debunk Jesus in a number of ways, from the veracity of the Scriptures to the most dubious conspiracy theories. In here are the theories regarding the death and burial of Jesus. If one desired to undercut the resurrection, then he might argue that He never existed (we dealt with that last time) or that He never died at all and therefore wasn’t buried, or may have been laid in a tomb, but was still alive.

Most all of these can be consolidated under what is called the “swoon theory”. This is the argument that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross, but went into some kind of deep subconscious state or coma and later revived.

So, let’s work our way through this theory.

  1. What do we know from the historical documents?
    • We addressed some of this last time, but there are sufficient non-biblical historical records that attest to the fact that Jesus was crucified. Tacitus even mentioned that Jesus was crucified at the hand of Pontius Pilate. Josephus, in the Arabic version, writes that Pilate had condemned Jesus to death. Thallus (via Julius Africanus) speaks of the earthquake and darkness that followed the crucifixion of Christ. The record of His death is referenced by Lucian, Mara Bar-Serapion, The Acts of Pontius Pilate (via Justin Martyr), Phlegon (via Origen), and the Jewish Thalmud. 
    • The death of Jesus in the biblical record is explicit. All four Gospels attest to His death: “He gave up His spirit” (Matthew and John); “breathed His last” (Mark & Luke) as well as the rest of the New Testament in too many places to list. 
    • The reality is that, by the best of historical literary standards, Jesus was tried by Pontius Pilate and sentenced to death by crucifixion
  2. Historical understanding of Roman crucifixion
    • The Roman method of execution was by crucifixion. The Persians invented it in 300BC and the Romans perfected it. They executed thousands this way, some say in the hundreds of thousands. It was cruel. It was horrific. It was meant to dissuade anyone from disobeying Roman authority. Our word excruciating comes from the Latin, excruciare, “out of the cross”.
    • If you have never read a medical and physiological description of crucifixion, you should probably do so, with the caution that it will make you sick.
    • Cicero called crucifixion the “extreme and ultimate punishment of slaves” and the “cruelest and most disgusting penalty.”
    • Josephus called it “the most pitiable of deaths.”
    • The Roman soldiers were under orders to execute criminals and they were professional at doing so.
    • This was their capital punishment. To insist that someone could go through this and still be alive would be like someone arguing that “Ted Bundy” survived the electric chair and is still alive, or “Timothy McVeigh”, who was executed by injection, survived and is still running around. This borders on the incredulous.
  3. Evidence of death
    • Not only was Jesus sentenced to death and then crucified, but there is historical descriptions that confirm He died. When the soldier pierced the side of Jesus to make sure He was dead, both blood and water flowed out of the wound. Some physicians believe this is a clear indication that Jesus’ heart had burst. Either that or the soldier, skillfully and purposefully, pierced Jesus’ heart. When the soldiers came to break the legs of the three crucified in order to kill them (they would then no longer be able to push up to get a breath of air), they did not break the legs of Jesus because He was already dead. Again, this was ascertained by the professional executioners who knew when someone was dead (reread the spear). The documents tell us He breathed His last and gave up His spirit; He was wrapped up in a shroud of cloth with aloe and myrrh; laid in a tomb; a large stone was rolled over the door and sealed; and a guard of Roman solders were posted outside.
    • When one then adds the vast evidence of all of the resurrection events, including the earthquake, the guards fleeing, the angels, etc… I don’t know how much evidence one needs, but it is more than compelling. It is overwhelming.
  4. Common sense issues
    • To think that someone could survive a Roman execution is grasping at straws. If you think one could survive crucifixion and then be wrapped in layers and layers of linen cloth mixed with 75 pounds of aloe and myrrh and not suffocate, you are now grasping at more than straws. When you add in that Jesus was first scourged (leaving most people near death and disgusting to even describe) and then crucified and then pierced with a sword (most likely into the heart) and after all this then wrapped in a shroud like a mummy and then laid in a cold tomb with a heavy stone over the entrance that was both sealed and guarded by professional Roman soldiers...well, if after all of this one still glibly maintains that Jesus was not only NOT dead, but then somehow able to get up and escape, one has simply entered into some logic twilight zone.
    • When Joseph of Arimathea came to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus to bury, Pilate first summoned the centurion to make sure He was dead, which the centurion confirmed. It is without any reason at all to believe, first, that the centurion would get it wrong or, second, that he would put his own life on the line by confirming that of which he wasn’t sure.
    • Nor would it make sense that Joseph and Nicodemus could spend a few hours with the body, carrying it and wrapping it, when rigor mortis is setting in, and somehow be fooled that the body wasn’t dead. 
    • And, maybe more so, it wouldn’t make sense at all that the post-resurrection, radical changes we see in the women and the disciples would have occurred if the death of Jesus was faked. Which leads us to the next…
  5. Ethical issues 
    • The swoon theory requires that Jesus was a most despicable liar and deceiver. He would have been lying to Magdalene, to the other women, to Peter, to Cleopas and His companion, to the disciples, to James and to the 500+ gathered on the mountain. This requires us to take a horrific leap from everything we have seen and heard from the life of Jesus to then say that He lied about His resurrection and that all of His appearances were nothing but a wholesale scam.
    • We would also have to either discount the record of the angels or say that they were also lying (that is hard to imagine) or that the women were lying and never saw them at all.
    • This would mean that both the women and the disciples were all part of a truly evil plot to deceive the world. And if so, many of them would have to have defended this lie up to and through their own executions.

There is another argument. It is the “substitution theory”. This position is mainly derived by some from the Koran which teaches that Jesus was real, a prophet, but it wasn’t Jesus that was crucified. Some then say that it was someone else on the cross, not Jesus—a substitute. This, in itself, would be quite extraordinary that someone would be willing to go through the horrible scourging and despicable death by crucifixion in order to propagate a lie. Not only that, but you are still left with the empty tomb to explain as well as all the ethical issues we listed above. There are also common-sense issues one of which is how can Jesus be tried and sentenced in front of the High Priest, chief priests and everyone else and no one just happens to notice that it is not Jesus? Or, how in the world did someone make a switch with Jesus under the command of the Roman soldiers? From the time Jesus was arrested until the time He was taken down from the cross, He was never out of the hands of the soldiers. There was no intervening time in jail somewhere. And, can anyone in their wildest dreams imagine that Jesus’ mother, at the cross, didn’t know that they were nailing someone else up there? Is she not able to discern the voice of her own son?

These, again, are desperate notions that expose the fact that we are not dealing with evidential problems here. Instead, we are dealing with heart problems. When you are in conversation with your neighbor and they offer some of these theories, recognize the real cause and deal with it appropriately and wisely, with grace.

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If Jesus Rose from the Dead, then (#1) the Seal Was Broken
We don’t spend much time talking about the seal that was placed upon the tomb, but I think it is significant. Here is the historical record: The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard. Matthew 27:62-66 The historical account states that the chief priests and the Pharisees “made the tomb secure by sealing the stone…”.  This seal was most likely several ropes that were drawn across the stone and then affixed to the tomb walls with a soft clay imprinted with some symbol of authority. It was also likely that the ropes were also sealed at their juncture in front of the stone. In this way, no one could move the stone or the ropes without breaking the dried clay and destroying the “seal” affixed upon the clay.  The seal was there to “put on notice” that no one was to mess with the tomb. Rome could deal quite nastily with those who did so. Now, this doesn’t mean much to us today, for we are long past the norm of using “seals” as they were utilized in ancient times. but in those days, a seal was inviolable. It represented authority, authenticity, and finality. No one messed with a seal. In the book of Esther, when King Ahasuerus issued the order to save the Jews, he commanded them to “seal it with the king's ring, for an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king's ring cannot be revoked.” When Daniel was thrown into the lion’s den, “… a stone was brought and laid on the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet and with the signet of his lords, that nothing might be changed concerning Daniel." In the vision concerning the destruction of Jerusalem, the Scripture says this: And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed. When men give it to one who can read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot, for it is sealed.” Isaiah 29:11 The permanence of a seal against all who were unauthorized to break it was an inviolable part of their world.  It becomes even more apparent when John is caught up to heaven and there beholds the scroll with seven seals. John begins to weep because there was “no one worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.” Of course, we find that the Lamb, “standing as though it had been slain”, was worthy to break the seals. And when each of those seals were broken, great calamity came upon the earth. Seals in the Scripture mean something. And John had wept, because the seal represented an inviolable wall to anyone who did not have the authority to break it. Seals show authority. They show authenticity. And they show finality for all except the one who had the authority to break them. And so, we now come back to the tomb. The seal, whether it was a Roman seal or the High Priest’s seal, represented a fixed closure that no one was allowed to breach. When it was set upon the tomb, there was a finality, a stamp of ultimate authority, that said, “this tomb is closed”. Ah, but God is not subject to the laws or seals of man. I can imagine that when the earth began to shake and the stone was rolled aside, that those clay seals with the authority of man impressed upon them broke into a thousand pieces and lay as trash littering the ground. If Jesus rose from the dead, then the seal of man, meant to keep Him in the grave, had been utterly and completely destroyed. But there is one more thing that must be mentioned regarding “seals”.  In John 6, Jesus said this: Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” John 6:27 If God seals something, it is sealed! In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, Eph 1:13 “… it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee. 2 Cor 1:21 This is God’s seal of authority, authenticity, and finality. You are His, sealed with His guarantee. Oh my! [previous] [next]
If Jesus Rose from the Dead, then (#3) the Guards Knew It
When it comes to the resurrection of Jesus, it should come as no surprise to anyone that it is here we find a focus of critique and skepticism. Yes, there is also critique regarding other aspects of Jesus’ life, primarily wherever there are miraculous events, like the virgin birth, walking on water or healing a man born blind. But, because the death, burial and resurrection are the foundational historical events for Christianity, without which there is no Christianity, they draw the heaviest fire.  We now arrive at one of those as we deal with the record of the guard at the tomb. Let’s look briefly at the critique before we move on. 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Matthew 27:62-66 Moving now to the morning of the resurrection, the guards are referenced again: Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Matthew 28:1-6 And, finally, the end of the guard’s story:  While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor's ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So, they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day. Matthew 28:11-15 Here is the sum total of what we know about the guards at the tomb. And it is because of this that we find the first of the two key arguments launched against the story of the guards: it sits alone in Matthew and is not found in the other gospels. The argument is that surely this key element would have been mentioned in the other accounts and because it is not, it must be legendary rather than historically true. First, historical truth is not determined by the number of sources. Certainly, the more sources, the more the historian is pleased. But it doesn’t give carte blanche reason to throw it out. By my count, there are around 100 things that are mentioned in only one of the Gospels. For example, Jesus washing the disciple’s feet at the last supper is only found in John. Are we to therefore conclude it didn’t happen? John ends his gospel stating this: Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. John 21:25 If this is true, then how are we to demand that gospels of a mere forty pages in length, give or take, should all select the same small percentage of events?  And, importantly, each gospel is written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit for a particular audience, using selective events for that purpose. Who is to determine what “key” events are needed to support that purpose other than the Author? Who are we to determine an event to be “key” and demand that it be found in other gospels as well? It appears that it is only Matthew who was interested in answering the charge that the disciples stole the body from the tomb. He then moves directly to the “Great Commission” (only in Matthew) and then ends. The others treat the empty tomb as obvious fact and move on, some to emphasize more of Jesus being alive and interacting with people after His resurrection. Those who do not believe in the inspiration of Scripture, however, try to use the fact that something only appears in one gospel as evidence that it didn’t happen. But when one puts together the entirety of the gospels and the rest of the Scripture, and those things that appear only once are substantiated by the weight of the others, it supports the plausibility of that one event.  So, in light of the other three gospels, John’s record that Jesus washed their feet on that night seems quite plausible, even to the skeptical historian. The second key criticism of the guard account centers on the notion that the chief priests and the Pharisees understood that Jesus had predicted his resurrection on the third day after His death, but the disciples didn’t. And the gospels don’t record the Jewish leaders hearing that prediction, whereas the disciples did. This would seem backwards. Let’s examine this. Jesus clearly predicted His death and resurrection. Here is one:  "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again" Mark 8:31 (See also Luke 9:22) Clearly, Jesus openly taught this and it isn’t unreasonable that the Jewish leaders would have gotten knowledge of it, even if they didn't hear it directly. (Though they might have and it was simply not recorded for us.) They were almost obsessed with knowing what Jesus was teaching and doing... not for good, but for evil. It is also very important here to keep in mind that the Pharisees weren’t emotionally involved with Jesus and the disciples were. It would be easy for the disciples to hear Jesus say all of this, but then rationalize it away or suppress it. In fact, that is what we see in the next verse after Jesus clearly states He will be killed and rise in three days (above). Peter immediately takes Jesus aside to rebuke Him. We see the exact same thing later in Mark 9:9-10. The Pharisees, however, had no such emotional attachment. Rather, they hung on His every word, not for its spiritual truth, but to find ways to get rid of Him. So, it is more than reasonable that the Pharisees knew of Jesus’ prediction and the disciples had suppressed it or rationalized it into some fuzzy eschatological future. So, it seems to me that the two key critiques are easily handled and the record of the guards remains quite plausible. But it is Matthew’s reference to a then current controversy that adds great substantiation to all of this. At the end of our text, Matthew states that the story of the disciples stealing the body while the guards slept “has been spread among the Jews to this day.” Matthew could not write this if it were not true. Remember, He was writing primarily to Jews, and the Jews could readily deny this assertion if it were false. Therefore, that rumor must have been currently circulating among the Jews and the rumor rests squarely upon the fact that there was a guard posted at the tomb. Now, there is a proper disagreement over this account and it has to do with whether the guards were Roman soldiers or the Temple Guard. Let’s look at this: First, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate requesting a guard and he responded: “you have a guard”. This can be taken that he was supplying one to them, had already supplied one to them, or that he was referring to their own Temple Guard. When Jesus was arrested in the garden, It is apparent by the word “cohort” used to describe the soldiers, that Roman soldiers were already involved. This offers support to the thought that those soldiers had previously been assigned to the Jewish authorities. This was not unusual for Rome to do so. In this case, a Roman “cohort” was about 600 men. That gives a vivid picture of what that arrest scene looked like. And, importantly, John states that is was a combination of both a Roman “cohort” and “some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees”. This most likely was a contingent from the Temple Guard. Second, “some of the guards reported to the chief priests” what had happened at the tomb. This also doesn’t tell us one way or the other, for if they were Roman, and they had been assigned to the Jewish authorities, they could have naturally reported back to them. If it were the Temple Guard, this would be expected. If it were a combination, then the word “some” also has meaning in that only the Temple Guard contingent reported back. This is also plausible because a Roman guard who failed in his mission was subject to a horrible death and wouldn’t want to report it to Pilate.  Third, we have the complicating statement by the Jewish leaders to the guards who reported back to them:  “…if this comes to the governor's ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” One might rightly think this tips in favor of the guard being Roman. I agree. But, on the other hand, Matthew tells us that the guards were bribed to say that the disciples had come and stolen Jesus body while they were asleep. No money would be enough for a Roman guard to confess to falling asleep on duty, for he would be executed (some say crucified upside down). The Temple Guard, however, if found asleep, were merely beaten and their clothes burned. (I know, but it's better than what the Roman soldier would get.) So, we can’t be absolutely sure. But, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. The Temple Guard were professionals as well, armed and trained. I’m not sure that anyone would want to bet on who would win if you pitted a Roman guard against a Temple guard. (Think of David's mighty men, like Benaiah, who slew a lion in a pit on a snowy day) The point here is that there was an armed, professional unit assigned to guard the tomb of Jesus. Now, try to imagine what this would have been like for these men. If they were Roman guards, they each had a designated, small area of ground to defend and they were stationed in a line to defend their charge. They remained diligent in position until relieved by a fresh guard. The morning was about to break, all was calm and then the earth begins to roll beneath their feet. Matthew calls it a “severe earthquake”. This in itself is disarming to anyone. But as the ground begins to return to normal, they see an angel descending whose appearance “was like lightning and his clothes as white as snow”. Encounters of finite man and angelic beings almost always result in the finite on their knees in fear. Which the guards did and “became as dead men”… in other words, frozen with fear. Not unconscious, though, for they reported it all. The guards obviously knew something big had happened.  We now come to our final question. Did they know that Jesus had risen from the dead? Here we must speculate a little, but not much, because when they reported everything to the Jewish leaders, that report had to include that the tomb was empty. Otherwise, there would have been no bribery for them to lie that the disciples had stolen the body.  Here is the speculation, however. The guard had been ordered to secure the tomb because of the prediction that Jesus would rise from the dead on the third day. They were charged to make sure the disciples did not come and steal the body. I believe they must have been counting off the days. When the morning of the third day was about to break, my guess is there had to be some anxiety. It is not impossible that what had happened during the crucifixion had already spread through the ranks. When Jesus was crucified and the sky grew dark for three hours and the earth quaked and the Roman centurion declared, “Truly this man was the Son of God”, this had to be in their minds. In fact, it is also plausible, that the Roman soldiers that were assigned to arrest Jesus were still on assignment at the cross and they saw all of this and they were now guarding His tomb. And, for three days, they were pondering all that they had seen and heard about Him. And now the earth begins to shake again, fiercely. No man can remain fearless when the earth beneath him turns liquid. But, on top of that, the heart-stopping lightning of an angel appears. Did they overhear the angels speaking to the women? Did they examine the tomb after the angel left? That would certainly seem reasonable. Either way, the guards had to have known the tomb was empty. And, when they were able to flee, they had to have known that they had witnessed something beyond extraordinary. In reality, these men had been privileged to be present at the greatest historical event in the history of man. I’ve often wondered if some of the guards became early converts. That wouldn’t surprise me.  Because they knew. [previous] [next] (If you are interested in reading more of a detailed apologetic regarding the guard, William Lane Craig has done a masterful job of defending this to the literary critics and I would commend you to that if you desire: https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/scholarly-writings/historical-jesus/the-guard-at-the-tomb/)