The last best hope of the New Testament scholar who is also skeptical of Christianity is that the disciples believed Jesus rose from the dead, but were decieved. If the disciples were not decieved, but were the decievers, this contradicts what virtually all New Testament scholars believe to be true. The evidence simply does not leave this option open to us.
If the disciples were the sort that would make up stories, what was their motive? Did they want to be violently persecuted, or even executed for their testimony? That is what happened. Every single apostle, except John, died for their gospel account. It isn’t that they didn’t try to kill John either. History records that they tried to execute him by boiling him in hot oil. He just wouldn’t die! They ended up imprisoning him on the island of Patmos, where he had visions recorded as the book of Revelation.
If they were lying about Jesus, they could have saved their lives by simply recanting their testimony. No liar is willing to die for a lie. Therefore, any theory that questions the integrity or sincerity of the apostles just doesn’t make sense.
Therefore, we need to be clear from the start that the theory that Jesus’s disciples stole His body from the tomb is not based on good scholarship. The genesis of this theory is actually recorded in the gospel of Matthew.
Matthew 27:62-66 records that after Jesus was crucified and buried, the chief priests and the Pharisees met with Pilate and requested that Roman guards be placed at the tomb for three days, pointing out that Jesus Himself said, “After three days I will rise.” They explained to Pilate that they actually anticipated Jesus’s disciples would attemt to steal the body and report that He had risen from the dead. Pilate ordered that a guard (in our terminology, more like a squad than a single guard) go and make the tomb secure.
The New Testament does not specify the number of guards that went, but we know there had to be more than one. After the resurrection Matthew 28:11 records, “some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place” (ESV). We see from this verse that the word translated as “guard” clearly means more than one man. Religious art generally depicts two guards, but we have good reasons to believe there were more. Since “some” of the guards reported to the chief priests, not all of them were there, and there was more than one with the chief priests, so there at least three. We know from historians that Roman protocol required at least four guards. However, since they were expecting Jesus’s disciples to steal the body, they probably posted at least 11 men, for the 11 remaining core disciples.
It is likely that even more guards were posted than that. Firstly, typical military straregy is to use overwhelming force–two or three guars for each apostle. Secondly, there were more disciples than the 11 chosen apostles, since the gosels record that great crowds followed Jesus. He had at least enough followers to appoint 72 who were trustworthy enough to enter towns ahead of Him to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom (see Luke 10:1-12). The Roman military probably planned for enough disciples to arrive to put up a good fight. Once again, they would have wanted an overwhelming force, whether the opposing force was expected to be 11, 72, or even more. I would not be surprised if they had at least posted the Roman equivalent of a platoon at the tomb.
The disciples, who were not trained for comat (with the possible exception of Simon the Zealot) would have had to fight off an overwhelming force of elite Roman soldiers. Not a bit likely.
Going back to Matthew’s account (specifically Matthew chapter 28), some of the guard went to the chief priests to tell them what happened. The chief priests assembled with the elders and decided to pay the Roman soldiers to propagate a lie. They advised the soldiers, “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.” (Matthew 28:13-14, ESV)
Matthew’s account is believable for several reasons. First of all, it would have highly unlikely, if not impossible, for a group of Jewish peasants to overrun an overwhelming force of the most highly trained soldiers of the time. We have already established this. Second of all, even if the disciples, against all odds, did manage to do this, the consequences would have been dire for that group of Roman guards. If they admitted to sleeping on watch, this would not merely be a stain on Roman pride. Falling asleep on watch was a capital offense in those days. In fact, later on Peter was arrested by Herod, and when he escaped Herod ordered the guards be put to death (Acts 12:19). They needed some additional motivation to tell the people that they fell asleep and the disciples robbed the tomb, whether it actually happened or not.
This explains what the chief priests and elders did. In order to ensure the Roman guards would be willing to spread this lie, they had to pay them a “sufficient sum of money” (Matthew 28:12, ESV) and reassure them by saying, “If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will… keep you out of trouble” (Matthew 28:14, ESV).
Is there any good reason to believe the disciples actually stole the body? No.
In addition to the reasons previously given, if the guards actually fell asleep, how would they know what happened to the body? Anything could have happened while they were sleeping. The disciples could have stolen the body. Or the Pharisees could have stolen the body. Or a flying saucer could have landed and extra-terrestrials stole the body. Or *gasp* Jesus actually rose from the dead!
Nope, couldn’t have been that last one. A gaggle of uneducated Jewish commoners must have overrun an elite, overwhelming force of Roman soldiers. They found these highly trained troops asleep on watch, and somehow managed not to wake any of them up when they moved the two ton boulder from the mouth of the tomb. Then the guards told everyone about it, so they must not have been too worried the governor would have them executed.
There’s little or no evidence to support this theory. It is highly unlikely, given what we know about Roman soldiers, but Jesus couldn’t possibly have risen from the dead, because that would mean Christianity is true. Even if all the evidence points to that, that couldn’t possibly have happened, because people don’t rise from the dead, right?