A recent podcast listener offered the following objection: Couldn’t the disciples have been wrong about the death of Jesus? After all, when Paul was stoned by the Jews from Antioch and Iconium (in Acts 14) they drug him out of the city and left him for dead. “While the disciples stood around him, he got up and entered the city” (verse 20). If the disciples were wrong about Paul, couldn’t they also have been wrong about Jesus? As I always say, anything and everything is possible, but not everything is reasonable. There are good reasons to believe that the disciples were not wrong about the death of Jesus:
1. Extended Contact
Unlike the their contact with Paul after his stoning, the disciples were in intimate and extended contact with the body of Jesus. We have a tendency to read over the following verses very quickly:
“So as evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council... …bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock.”
But stop and think about it for a minute. The disciples had to remove the nails, collect the body, carry it some distance to the tomb, treat the body thoroughly with the customary ointments and spices used in such situations, wrap the body and then place it in the tomb. While we can read through this process in minutes, it takes a lot longer to actually complete. Surely the disciples were also deeply grieved by the death of Jesus. In all this extended contact with his body, do we really think they wouldn’t do everything possible to prove to themselves that he wasn’t really dead? In all of this time, is it reasonable to believe that they wouldn’t have noticed the three inconvenient properties of dead bodies? I’ve been around enough dead people to recognize that properties that appear when a heart stops beating:
Loss of Temperature
When the heart stops pumping, the body begins to cool. In the time it would take to prepare Jesus for the tomb, the disciples would certainly have observed this feature of death.
When blood is not circulating, the body begins to stiffen. Dead bodies begin to feel and behave differently than unconscious bodies with a beating heart.
Gravity begins to act on un-circulating blood. As blood settles in those extremities that are closest to the ground, discoloration is notable.
In all the time it took to prepare Jesus’ body, with all the extended contact the disciples had, is it really reasonable to think they would not have repeatedly checked to see if he was still breathing and that they would not have noticed the three inconvenient properties of dead people?
2. Un-Expected Corroboration
John, a disciple of Jesus, was raised as a fisherman. I doubt that he had any medical training. Yet look at what he reports in his gospel:
“The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.”
John seems to record an aspect of Jesus’ body that is common when people are fatally wounded. Critical injuries typically cause people to enter Circulatory Shock, a condition I often see at assault or accident scenes. When people die of their injuries, their death is often accompanied with Pericardial or Pleural Effusion, a condition that causes water to accumulate around the heart or within the lungs. It appears that the uneducated fisherman is reporting this condition in his gospel. Think he might have done this intentionally in an effort to deceive us, or is it more reasonable to attribute this description to a true observation?
3. External Confirmation
History tells us that there was a tremendous penalty to be paid by Roman soldiers if they allowed a capital criminal to either escape or avoid the penalty for which they were sentenced. For this reason, Roman soldiers were brutal and meticulous, executing their orders with precision. Look again at how the Bible describes the death of Jesus:
Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.
According to the non-Christians at the scene, Jesus was dead on the cross.
4. Eyewitness Connection
Take a look at the description of the burial of Jesus offered in the Gospel of Mark. Notice the description of Joseph of Arimathea:
It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock.
Mark appears to be describing the same scene as John, but Mark includes a character that John omits. Why would Mark writing many years prior to John, include Joseph? It’s reasonable that Joseph was still alive when Mark wrote his account; Mark may be including Joseph so that the early readers could contact Joseph as an living eyewitness who not only saw the crucifixion, but also touched and wrapped the dead body of Jesus.
The experience the disciples had with Jesus was very different than the experience the disciples had with Paul at his point of his stoning. The disciples simply “stood around” Paul after the stoning; they did far more with the body of Jesus following his crucifixion.