Was the Easter resurrection the original 'whodunnit'?
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Rev Steve Jones, rector of Littleham, Holy Trinity and Lympstone, writes for the Journal.
I love a good mystery story that really makes you think. I enjoy trying to figure out how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together.
When I was a police officer in Wiltshire, I enjoyed working with the scenes of crime officers, gathering all the pieces of evidence that were available, and then trying to piece together what had happened: who had done what, to whom, and where did it happen?
I always had this deep need to get the story straight. While you might not think that what happened between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is a whodunnit, I think it is. On Good Friday, 2000 years ago, Jesus was crucified just outside the city walls of Jerusalem at just about 9.00am.
Both biblical and non-biblical writers, including well-respected Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, record the crucifixion of Jesus by Pontius Pilate as historical fact.
Around 3.00pm, Jesus was taken down from the cross, dead. It is entirely reasonable to conclude that Jesus was dead because Roman military law was extremely severe toward any soldier in an execution party whose prisoner lived.
Add to this that Roman soldiers were experts in the termination of life, and they knew what death looked like. It is what happened next that is the mystery. The biblical accounts record that, on the afternoon of Good Friday, Jesus’ body was placed into a stone tomb and sealed.
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Guards were placed upon the tomb to make sure that no one perpetrated a fraud by stealing the body and claiming that he had risen from the dead.
The Christian Church has always claimed, and the great majority of historical scholars agree, that on Easter Sunday morning the tomb was empty.
In the early centuries following Jesus’ crucifixion, the fact of the empty tomb was not seriously challenged by anyone.
So, where did Jesus’ body go? It has been suggested that the Jewish leaders stole it to prevent a fraud. If that were the case, the Jewish leadership would have produced the body to refute the Christians who started claiming Jesus had been resurrected.
They did not produce it, and we can reasonably infer that was because they did not have it. It has been suggested that the Romans stole the body, also to prevent a fraud. If this were the truth, Pilate would have produced the body for the same reason that the Jewish leadership would.
Pilate was on probation with the Roman Emperor at this time and needed to quell any local trouble quickly.
Producing the body to refute the Christian sect would have solved this problem, but he did no such thing.
The leading suspects for stealing the body of Jesus are, of course, his disciples.
If they stole the body, then they could claim that Jesus had been resurrected and keep their movement going.
The challenge with that theory is that, in the years that followed, the church histories indicate eleven of the apostles were arrested and ultimately put to death for their faith.
What their persecutors demanded was the apostles’ denial of Jesus the risen Christ. Of all people, the apostles would have known if the resurrection claims were a hoax.
So how many of the eleven apostles denied Jesus to save themselves? None of them. In my own mind it is possible that one or two of the apostles might, bizarrely, have died to protect something they knew to be a lie.
That all eleven did so is too hard for me to believe. The Christian Church believes that the reason there is no evidence of a theft is because Jesus’ body wasn’t stolen; Jesus did just what he said he would do and miraculously came back from the dead (after which he was seen by hundreds of witnesses).
So, if you come across any happy and singing Christians on Easter Sunday morning, that is the reason why they are rejoicing.