The resurrection account according to Matthew’s Gospel contains an interesting interlude between appearances of the risen Christ. Matthew 28:11-15 reads:
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.
Writing as early as the 50’s and perhaps as late as the 80’s, Matthew refers to a rival story among the Jews, one that circulated for decades after the event in question (Jesus was crucified in the 30’s). For Matthew to refer to the circulation of such a story implies that he is drawing on fairly common knowledge among Jews in Palestine. It would be highly unlikely that he would assert that such a rival story existed if, in fact, it had never circulated among the Jews. In other words, if Matthew were lying here about the rival story among the Jews, his lie would have been easily detected, and his credibility would then have been ruined.
Historically speaking, then, there is strong evidence that those who opposed the early Christian movement countered the claim of Jesus’ resurrection by arguing that Jesus’ disciples stole his body from the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. What is most significant about this claim is that it acknowledges that the tomb was empty after the body of Jesus had been laid in it. We have no record that the enemies of the early Christians ever sought to counter their claims by producing Jesus’ body. That would have been the easiest solution to the problem if, in fact, Jesus’ body could have been easily located in the place where it was buried. Therefore, it is reasonable to suppose that the tomb of Jesus was, in fact, empty.
It is also reasonable to suppose, based on the historical evidence, that Jesus’ disciples sincerely believed that he had been raised from the dead. The great zeal, courage, and tenacity that they displayed in the years following the crucifixion of Jesus are the marks of true believers. Because of their claims about Jesus, the disciples were marginalized in their communities, persecuted, imprisoned, and many of them were put to death. Not once do we read of one of them spilling the beans as the pressure mounted in order to demonstrate that it was all a vast conspiracy. It is highly unlikely that the disciples would have carried on with the show the way they did if they did not sincerely believe that they had seen the risen Lord.
And so we have two conclusions that we can say are solidly grounded in the historical evidence:
(1) Jesus’ tomb was empty.
(2) Jesus’ disciples sincerely believed that they had seen him alive after his crucifixion.
How can we explain these two events? Clearly, the hypothesis that the disciples stole the body won’t work, because it violates point number 2. So, we are left with alternate explanations. We could say that someone else, for unknown reasons, stole the body of Jesus, thereby leading to the rumor among the Jews. We could also say that the disciples hallucinated appearances of Jesus that led them to believe sincerely in his resurrection. But the problem is, if we resort to this explanation, we have to explain these facts by appealing to two highly unlikely events.
First, it is highly unlikely that anyone else could have or would have stolen Jesus’ body. What would be the motive? And how would this person or group have pulled it off when the tomb was sealed and guarded? Furthermore, how could this person or group of people have kept such an amazing feat a secret for very long, especially in light of the upheaval going on all around them after the event?
Second, it is highly unlikely that the disciples would have hallucinated the appearances of Jesus. Are we to suppose that they hallucinated collectively? Is not hallucination a phenomenon that is related to the particular psychological conditions of an individual at a given time? Furthermore, what would have led to such a hallucination? Just like the other adherents to other failed messianic movements of the same time period, the disciples of Jesus had given up hope after his crucifixion. They thought the game was over and thus had no reason to expect anything further to happen. Finally, the disciples had no theological categories for the bodily resurrection of a single individual occurring in the middle of history. In keeping with Jewish beliefs of the first century, they would have expected the resurrection of all of the dead at the end of history. Therefore, if they had hallucinated the appearances, they most likely would have claimed to have seen Jesus in Paradise with Abraham, not standing before them chewing on fish (Luke 24:41-43).
So we can either conclude that the best explanation for the two historical facts of the empty tomb and the appearances to the disciples is that two highly unlikely and inexplicable events happened to occur at the same time or that Jesus was in fact raised bodily from the dead and personally appeared to his disciples on several occasions, just as he had predicted. If we are truly open to all possible explanations instead of eliminating from the start the possibility of divine intervention in history, the historical evidence clearly leads to the conclusion that God raised Jesus from the dead in fulfillment of his saving promises given in the Old Testament Scriptures.