The Stone, the Guards, and the Body

by Neil Earle

Christianity stands or fall on what Easter is all about – the resurrection of Jesus Christ from a rock tomb in Jerusalem.

“If Christ has not been raised,” wrote the apostle Paul, “our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14).

You see, Christians believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection sealed in blood our claims to eternal life in the Kingdom of God and that we have a future. Jesus promised said, “Because I live you shall live also” (John 14:19). The raising of Jesus by God the Father validated that promise and all others (2 Corinthians 1:20). The writings on the evidence for Christ’s resurrection are encyclopedic; this article focuses on only three strands of evidence from the Gospels that together make a mighty triple cord – a secure lifeline of belief that answers objections commonly raised against the first Easter.

Who Moved the Stone?

In the 1800s a skeptical English lawyer named Frank Morison took it upon himself to challenge the Easter story by doing his own investigation of the Four Gospels. He began with an important and often overlooked piece of evidence – the fact of the massive, perhaps 2000 pound stone barrier rolled in the face of most tombs in Jerusalem in the First Century.

In Mark 16 we read of the women coming to finish the anointing of Jesus’ body early Sunday morning and wondering out loud, “How can we move the stone?” Those massive slabs were locked in place on a trough built with a slight incline against the tomb face. It took at least 3-5 men to move such an obstacle.

But…when the two Marys and Salome reached the tomb the stone was rolled way and the tomb was empty (Mark 16:1-5). They immediately suspected the worst but were told by an angel (or two angels in Luke's account) “He is not here, he is risen!”

Jewish tombs of that era were cut horizontally out of solid rock. The stone covering made a locking sound when it slammed into the end of the trough. It was impossible for 3 women to open it, which shows how their hearts were leading their heads that first Easter morning. But Morison was convinced that this detail in the resurrection accounts shows how solid the case was against Jesus’ body being stolen or easily lifted out of its place by grave robbers or used by the disciples to set up a hoax.

The very mention of the impassive rock tomb inspired Professor Wilbur Smith to comment on the background historical veracity of what we read in Mark 16:

“The place is of geographical definiteness, the man who owned the tomb was a man living in the first half of the first century; that tomb was made out of rock in a hillside near Jerusalem and Was not composed of some mythological gossamer or cloud dust, but is something which has geographical significance” (Therefore Stand, page 386).

As Smith said, the gospel descriptions of the tomb rhymes with what we know of tombs in the First Century. It fits. There is also the fact that the tomb did not become a religious object until the 300’s AD. Ask me where Lenin’s tomb is and I can tell you – Moscow. Mohammed’s tomb is in Mecca. The Buddha's tree is in Northern India. But controversy surrounds the burial place of Christ because Christians saw no need to venerate it or mark it as a religious icon.

And why? Because he was not there. He was raised.

The tomb gets us thinking about how authentic the evidence is, that and one other factor Morison and others have recorded as important.

The Roman Guard

Not only was the tomb as secure as solid rock but it was secured by the authority of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. This was at the request of the Jewish priesthood. The bloodthirsty Sanhedrin knew Jesus talked about being raised in three days. To prevent any kind of such legend arising they petitioned Pilate for a Roman guard to watch the tomb. Pilate not only gave them a Roman guard of at least four men from the Jerusalem detachment, but he charged them to seal the tomb with the imperial Romans seal which it was death to break!

“Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how," Pilate told the priesthood (Matthew 27: 62-5).

But by doing this the deadly enemies of Jesus overreached themselves. Their paranoid security measures became the best argument against the cover story they would later concoct – that the disciples stole the body. But the hoary “disciples-stole-the body-while-the guard-slept” story dies stillborn for two reasons.

One, if the guards were asleep how did they know who stole the body?

Second, the Roman penalty for sleeping on watch was DEATH!

So Jesus’ enemies set about “sealing the stone and setting the guard” (Matthew 28:65-66). This recoiled badly against them when an angel appeared after an earthquake, a fearsome supernatural visitor whose appearance scared the Roman guards to death – which took a lot! Matthew 28:11-15 describes them bewildered, confused and fearful of their lives stumbling back to the Jerusalem hierarchy telling them what had happened. The Priests had only one weak reply – Tell people the disciples stole the body.

Albert Roper stuck the nail into this Big Lie in a line that is eloquent with forceful wisdom: “Soldiers cold-blooded enough to gamble over a dying victim’s cloak are not the kind to be hoodwinked by timid Galileans or to jeopardize their Roman necks by sleeping on their posts” (Did Jesus Rise From the Dead? page 24).

Exactly. The Sanhedrin outsmarted themselves. Frank Morison saw all this indirect evidence building up and wrote one of the best-selling books of the 1800, Who Moved the Stone?

The Body

But where was Jesus’ body?

Another British lawyer, J.N.D. Anderson made the case for how easy it was to stop the talk off Jesus’ resurrection in its tracks, if it were a hoax. He wrote: “It is a matter of history that the apostles from the very beginning made many converts in Jerusalem, hostile as it was, by proclaiming the glad news that Jesus had risen from the grave – and they did it within a short walk from the sepulcher. Any one of their hearers could have visited the tomb and come back again between lunch and whatever would have been the equivalent of afternoon tea. Is it conceivable, then, that the apostles would have had this success if the body of the one they proclaimed as risen Lord was all the time decomposing in Joseph’s tomb” (Quoted in McDowell, Evidence That Demands A Verdict, Volume I, page 217).

Jerusalem was not that large a city. How easy it would have been for the Sanhedrim to send a delegation to Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb – he was member of their council – and display the body and end the apostolic preaching once and for all. This is why the silence of the Jews speaks as loudly as the speeches of the apostles.

An interesting eyewitness detail is given in John's Gospel that points to the fact that the newly risen Jesus was both the same and different than he had been as a wandering preacher. It was John’s staring at the grave clothes that gives away the significance of those clothes and what it meant (John 20:3-9). Merrill Tenney recorded in The Reality of the Resurrection that Jewish bodies after death were “washed and straightened, and then bandaged tightly form the arm to the ankle in strips of linen about a foot wide. Aromatic spices often of gummy consistency were placed between the wrappings or folds. They served partially as a preservative and partly as a cement to glue the cloth wrappings into a solid covering” (pages 116-117).

These seemingly obscure details point to the fact that Jewish corpses were almost – not quite but almost – mummified in hardened material. Remember how Lazarus had to be “unbound” when Jesus called him from the tomb? (John 11:44, AV).

Jesus’ body was “wrapped” in linen Luke tells us (Luke 23:53). When John stared into the tomb that first Easter morning and saw the grave clothes “lying there” there was something about the clothes that made him believe in the resurrection – alone among the Twelve (John 20:18-20). John knew that Jesus had passed through his grave clothes, that somehow his body was no longer flesh and bone but of a different quality.

Leading scholar N.T. Wright confirms this quiet belief among Christian writers that while Jesus was raised bodily his body was now of a different consistency then it had been before (The Resurrection of the Son of God, page 688). This makes sense of his resurrection appearances in the upper room that Sunday evening where he invited his disciples to feel the marks in his hands and sides. Jesus knew these men well. He wanted them to have the clearest kind of evidence that he had come back from the dead and conquered Death and the Grave once and for all (Revelation 1:18).

The disciple Thomas was not there that first Sunday and refused to believe. He too became a star witness in the written evidence for the resurrection because he as convinced to believe against his will!

To him Jesus said, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29)

And that brings it down to us today – you and I. We have not seen but believe all these many centuries later. We too believe that because Jesus conquered Death we shall live also – forever, in eternity with new glorified bodies like his (Philippians 3:21). The eyewitnesses who saw and heard and handled the glorified body of their Lord and Savior have handed their accounts down to us. We believe them. We deeply treasure that most important doctrine of all – the resurrection of our Lord from the dead.

Let us be encouraged – he is raised indeed!