The resurrection is central to the Christian faith, as the apostle Paul tells us,
For if the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised: and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is meaningless; you are still in your sins. Then they also that have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have only hoped in Christ in this life, we are of all men most pitiable. (1 Cor 15:16–19)
The Christian claim is that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified (Matt 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:33), that on the cross he died (Matt 27:50; Mark 15:37; Luke 23:46), his body was removed from the cross by Roman soldiers and given to Joseph of Arimathea (Matt 27:58–69; Mark 15:43–45; Luke 23:52), that Joseph placed his body in a tomb (Matt 27:60; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53). This all occurred on a Friday (Luke 23:54).
The tomb was covered with a large stone, in the shape of a disc, which was pushed down a groove with a slight ramp, and there it was marked by imprinting some clay with the royal seal and guarded with heavily-armed Roman soldiers (Matt 27:62–66; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53), who were most likely members of the Praetorian Guard (Matt 27:27; Mark 15:16). One of the five cohorts of the Praetorians was stationed in Jerusalem. As such, they were either Roman or born in a well-established Roman colony and trained to high standards. On Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene and others found his tomb empty (Matt 28:1–7; Mark 16:1–7; Luke 24:1–5).
The empty tomb
According to the biblical narratives, the empty tomb was seen by the Praetorians who had been assigned by Jewish authorities to guard it (Matt 28:4). They reported to Jewish authorities about the events associated with Jesus’s resurrection (Matt 28:11–15), who paid them hush money and promised to protect them from any reprisals from their superiors in the regional government.
Of course, the lie fabricated by the authorities was implausible from the beginning. Even had the guards fallen asleep at the peril of their own lives—even modern soldiers face penalties for falling asleep when they are supposed to be standing watch—they would have been signing their death warrant by admitting it. Matthew, a former tax collector who had connections in the local government, reports that the Jewish authorities accepted the soldiers’ account as true. I might once have been skeptical about the cover-up story, but as the years have gone on and as I have seen public authorities look straight at us and tell bald-faced lies, my skepticism has given way.
The empty tomb was also seen by Mary Magdalene, by Mary the mother of James, and by Salome (Matt 28:1–6; Mark 16:1–5; Luke 24:1–4). After the women notified the disciples, Peter and John (“the beloved disciple”) also visited the scene and saw the empty tomb with their own eyes (John 20:2–8). Indeed, if the story were true about Jesus’ body having been stolen, we would have expected the scene to be helter-skelter. Instead, John says that they found the linen shroud in the tomb, along with the neatly folded face cloth in the arcosolium (the compartment in which Joseph laid Jesus’ body). The idea that a band of disciples sneaked in, silently pushed the heavy stone disc up the ramp, removed Jesus’ body, removed the linen shroud, and removed the face cloth—leaving it neatly folded in the compartment—without waking the soldiers begs belief.