Who moved the stone?

A thought-provoking look at the historical viability of the Christian belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

David Marshall, Ph.D., is senior editor at The Stanborough Press, Ltd., Grantham, Lincolnshire, England.

The Resurrection is a fact of history. And Christian belief is invalid I without it. As the first great front-runner of Christianity contended, "If Christ was not raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your trust in God is useless" (1 Cor. 15:14, NLT).

Two Jewish authors (Joseph Klausner and Pinchas Lapide) and four lawyers (Ross Clifford, Simon Greenleaf, Charles Colson, and Frank Morison), having examined the evidence from either a neutral or a hostile perspective, reached the conclusion that it had indeed been an "historical event." Each of the four "witnesses" (the Gospel writers) passed the most rigorous of their tests.

All the alternative explanations of the empty tomb are based on the eighteenth century "closed system" belief: that the resurrection of Jesus could not have happened because it was not repeatable. Recent authors have taken the view that the universe is more like a great thought than a great machine. They argue that the case against miracles is acceptable only if every report of a miracle has been investigated and found to be false.

Historians do not force the evidence to fit a preconceived conclusion, but permit it to speak for itself. Here we examine the nature of the sources, the evidence for the death of Jesus, and the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.

The sources

F. C. Baur (1792-1860) assumed that the four gospels had, in the main, been written in the second century and that the miraculous content represented embellishment. John A. T. Robinson (1919-1983) of Baur's school of criticism, reached the conclusion, after years of research, that all the Gospels were written before A.D. 70. He scolded the earlier critics for their scholarly "sloth" and "almost wilful blindness."

R. T. France, after an examination of Robinson's redating of the New Testament books, wrote that he believed it probable that some, and perhaps all, of the Gospels were written in close to their present form, within 30 years of the events.

The accounts of the Resurrection and appearances of Jesus are to be found in Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20, and 1 Corinthians 15. These are the sources that contain the testimonies of the witnesses. (See note on page 21.)

Evidence for the death of Jesus

Before the crucifixion verdict was pronounced, the Roman governor had already ordered that Jesus be whipped. The 39 lashes of the flagrum across the shoulders, back, and legs of the prisoner would cut through the subcutaneous tissue; would render the back an unrecognizable mass of torn, bleeding tissue; and would cause arterial bleeding from blood vessels in the underlying muscles. Many did not survive 39 lashes.

In the recent past, Israeli archaeologists have learned much about crucifixion from an excavation on Mount Scopus. A seven-inch spike was driven through both heel bones. A heavy wrought-iron spike would be driven through the front of the wrist. Muscular pain would be excruciating. Air would be drawn into the lungs that could not be exhaled. Carbon dioxide would build up in the lungs and the bloodstream. Death would come by suffocation.

Romans were grimly efficient with crucifixion. There were no survivors.

Evidence for the Resurrection

Two wealthy Jews prepared the corpse of the crucified Jesus for burial. They would willingly have relinquished all their wealth and influence for one vital sign that He was alive. The women were witnesses. There were no signs of life. Jesus was buried.

The weight of the stone. A stone which would have weighed between one-and-a-half and two tons was rolled over the entrance of the tomb. On the Sabbath—the next day—the Jewish authorities went to the Roman governor and asked that the tomb be secured by a guard. A seal was placed on the stone so that it could not be removed without the knowledge of the authorities, and a guard was post ed (Matt. 27:62-66).

The soldiers. Whether the guard was Jewish or Roman, the story that they were bribed to tell—that the body had been stolen by the disciples while they were sleeping—would not have been passed on except by the frightened, the unintelligent, or those who had a strong vested interest. How could the guards have known who stole the body if they were asleep? "Soldiers and priests and Pilate evidently believed that something supernatural had happened, wrote John Wenham. "Hence the willingness of the authorities to screen the soldiers" (see Matt. 28:11-15).

The broken seal. Among the many difficulties is the evidence of the broken Roman seal; those responsible, if apprehended, would have automatically been executed. The idea that a group of disciples would have taken on either the temple guard or a detachment of a Roman legion in order to take the risk of breaking a Roman seal is preposterous. One authority says: "No approach to the origin of faith in Jesus' resurrection will get far unless it realizes what a shattering blow his crucifixion had been for his followers. His execution had been followed by an horrific crisis of faith." "We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel"—had hoped, past historic tense—was how one disciple expressed it (Luke 24:21, NIV). Sunday morning found the disciples in a state of shock and spiritual disillusionment. The disciples were not prepared for His resurrection.

It took an objective encounter with the risen Jesus to crystallize the disciples' faith in Him and cause them to proclaim His resurrection. Visions and subjective experiences would not have done it. Something had been seen. Something real.

Appearances. The Resurrection witnesses identified the risen Jesus with the earthly Jesus. "After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days" (Acts 1:3, NIV). When Jesus is said to have been seen or to have appeared, the disciples saw Him with ordinary vision. "Look at my hands and my feet," He said. "I have seen the Lord!" the witnesses announced (Matt. 28:17; Luke 24:34, 39-46; John 20:14,18, 20; 1 Cor. 15:5- 8). Jesus is reported to have spoken (Matt. 28:9, 18-20), to have walked (Luke 24:13-16), to have distributed food (Luke 24:30), to have eaten (Acts 1:4), to have performed signs (John 20:30), to have given a blessing with His hands (Luke 24:50), to have shown His hands and His side (John 20:20), and to have been touched (Matt. 28:9).

Empty tomb. The empty tomb was the indispensable Exhibit A of the launch of Christianity on Jerusalem. If Joseph's new tomb had not been empty, the very-much-under-pressure temple establishment would have simply aborted the movement by making a brief trip to the sepulcher and parading the body of Jesus around the city. "They did not do this because they knew the tomb was empty. Their official explanation for it—that the disciples had stolen the body—was an admission that the sepulchre was indeed vacant." Both Roman and Jewish sources and traditions acknowledge an empty tomb. The sources range from Josephus Flavius to a compilation of fifth-century Jewish writings called Toledoth feshu. If a source admits a fact decidedly not in its favor, then that admission becomes strong evidence that the fact is genuine.

The high priests and the Sanhedrin had shown political skill in handling Pilate. It would have required little skill on their part to have handled Christ's followers had they known the location of the body. Instead, the Jewish authorities were reduced to hauling the disciples in from time to time in order to threaten them with death if they did not stop preaching the risen Christ (Acts 5:17-42). There was little else they could do—with the tomb empty, a strong impression on their part that something super natural had occurred, and a growing number (including priests) embracing the truth of the resurrection.

Moving the stone. Frank Morison entitled his compelling account of the evidence, Who Moved the Stone? That question must have baffled those who wanted to believe that the disciples had stolen the body. A stone weighing between one-and-a-half to two tons had been removed. Matthew said that a large stone was "rolled ... in front of the entrance to the tomb." The Greek verb "to roll" is kulio. In his account of the position of the stone after the Resurrection, Mark had to use a preposition with the verb. In Greek, as in English, to change the direction of a verb or to intensify it, a preposition is added. Mark added the preposition ana, which means "up" or "upward."Mark's word, onokulio, can mean "to roll something up a slope or incline." Luke adds to the picture by adding a different preposition, apo, which means "a distance from." So the stone was not just moved! It was moved up a slope, for a distance.

John (chapter 20) uses a different Greek verb, aim, which means "to pick something up and carry it away." Even had the soldiers been sleeping, they would have had to have been deaf not to have heard a stone of that size being moved in that way.

Circumstantial evidence

The existence of the Christian church. How could such a movement be founded on a lie? Why would men described by an enemy of Christianity as being of "pure and austere morals" allow themselves to be beaten, imprisoned, tortured, and executed for a lie? If this were a fraud on the part of such people, why, under pressure of death, did not at least some of them break and recant?

Changed lives. Gethsemane's cowards became Pentecost's heroes. This is inexplicable without the Resurrection. Had prestige, wealth, and increased social status accrued to new believers when they professed Christ and His resurrection, their profession would be logically understandable. In fact, however, their "rewards" were of a different type, eventually involving lions, crucifixion, and every other conceivable method of stopping them from talking. The revolutionary change in the lives of the early apostles has been replicated millions of times in the two millennia of Christian history.

The inadequacy of opposing arguments

Three theories have been advanced to "explain" the Resurrection: the removal theory, the wrong-tomb theory, and the swoon theory. None of them stands up to inquiry. The removal theory suggests that the body of Jesus was removed. If either the Jewish or the Roman authorities had removed and reburied the body of Jesus, all they had to do in the ensuing days and years to quash Christianity was to say, "We gave orders to remove the body," and then to show where His body had been buried or disposed of. That action was not taken.

Did the disciples remove the body? The disciples could neither have taken on the temple guard nor a unit of Roman soldiers, nor could they have removed the stone.

The wrong-tomb theory holds that the women went to the wrong tomb.

According to this theory, the women were so distraught that, in the dimness of early morning, they went to the wrong tomb. The seal and the guard, one imagines, would have made the right tomb conspicuous even in the first light of dawn. Nevertheless, this theory falls because had the women gone to the wrong tomb, the high priests and the other enemies of the faith would rapidly have gone to the right tomb and produced the body.

The swoon theory argues that Jesus swooned and revived in the tomb. This theory teaches that despite the flagellation and blood loss, the spikes in the ankles and the wrists, the hours of exposure on the cross, and the spear in His side, Jesus somehow survived. This theory first appeared 18 centuries after the Resurrection when, apparently, it was possible to believe that a man could survive burial in a damp tomb without food or water or attention of any kind; that He could survive being wrapped in heavy, spice-laden grave-clothes; and that He could then summon up the strength to extricate Himself from the grave-clothes, push away a heavy stone from the mouth of a tomb, overcome the guards—and walk miles on pierced feet to be hailed as Conqueror of Death and Prince of Life.

David Strauss, a noted nineteenth century critic who did not believe in the Resurrection, rejected this idea. "It is impossible that one who had just come forth from the grave half dead, who crept about weak and ill, who stood in need of medical treatment, of bandaging, strengthening, and tender care, and who at last succumbed to suffering, could ever have given the disciples the impression that he was a conqueror over death and the grave," wrote Strauss.

Richard Swinburne, who recently examined the case for the Resurrection from the scientific, rationalist position, reached the conclusion that "the detailed historical evidence" is "so strong" that, "despite the fact that such a resurrection would have been a violation of natural laws, the balance of probability is in favour of the resurrection." A dispassionate lawyer or historian would have to consider the case proven.

P. Beasley-Murray, The Message of the Resurrection (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

Ross Clifford, Leading Lawyers Look at the Resurrection (Sutherland, NSW: Albatross, 1991).

S. Davis, D. Kendall, and G. O'Collins, eds. The Resurrection: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Resurrection of Jesus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

R. T. France, The Evidence for Jesus (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1986).

M. Green, The Empty Cross of Jesus (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1984).

J. McDowell, The Resurrection Factor (first ed., Alpha, 1993; 2000 edition).

A. T. Hanson, The Prophetic Gospel (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1991).

John Wenham, The Easter Enigma: Are the Resurrection Accounts in Conflict? (Exeter: Patternoster Press, 1996).

N. T. Wright and M. Borg, The Meaning of Jesus (London: SPCK, 1999).

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David Marshall, Ph.D., is senior editor at The Stanborough Press, Ltd., Grantham, Lincolnshire, England.

March 2004

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