“Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Sanhedrin who was himself looking forward to the kingdom of God, came and boldly went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’s body. Pilate was surprised that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had already died. When he found out from the centurion, he gave the corpse to Joseph.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Conspiracy theories are everywhere we look these days. Some are new. Some are enduring old ones. There are still people, for instance, who believe the moon landing was a fake and that we never went. There are all kinds of conspiracy theories surrounding the death of JFK. More than a quarter of the country believes the government is hiding aliens in Area 51. Nearly a quarter is convinced 9/11 was an inside job. The trouble with conspiracy theories and those who have bought into them is that there is no way to convince them otherwise. Any evidence to the contrary is automatically discounted as part of the cover-up. You could fly someone who is convinced the moon landing was fake to the moon itself, but they’d just insist it was all an elaborate hoax. Well, when it comes to Jesus, one of the most enduring conspiracy theories is that He didn’t really die on the cross. At the risk of being a part of the cover-up, let’s talk this morning about why that is absolute nonsense.
One of the most popular presentations of this idea, sometimes called the “swoon theory,” was published as the book The Passover Plot by Hugh J. Schonfield in 1965. Schonfield’s basic argument about Jesus was that while He wasn’t really the Messiah at all, He was absolutely convinced He was. Having bought into His own fantasy, He managed to live His life in such a way as to line up with the various Jewish prophecies about the Messiah. He was committed to this plan to the point that He engineered His own arrest, trial, and crucifixion. But when Jesus asked for a drink while hanging there and a sponge with sour wine was lifted to his lips, what really happened was that one of His agents had soaked the sponge with a drug that would put Him into a convincing coma. Once He was “dead,” Joseph went to Pilate as we see here to get His body to hide Him away so that He could recover from His ordeal.
The book was popular enough that it was made into a film by the same name that was actually nominated for an Oscar for costume design in 1976. Unfortunately for Schonfield and his readers, the theory is utter rubbish. It relies on outright fabrications and ignores a mountain of evidence to the contrary in the Scriptures. But again, to a conspiracy theorist, any evidence to the contrary is only part of the cover-up. That’s what makes squashing them out of existence so frustratingly difficult.
While there are a number of different places we could go to refute this pernicious idea, we don’t have to turn any further than these three verses. There are four reasons we can see right here for why we should so thoroughly reject this view.
First, Joseph asked for Jesus’ body. There is not a single shred of evidence that Joseph was somehow a secret agent of Jesus’, planted as part of an elaborate plot to be crucified without dying. Joseph went to Pilate to ask for Jesus’ body because He was dead. He wouldn’t have done so otherwise.
Second, the news of Jesus’ demise shocked Pilate. He knew Jesus would wind up dead, but he didn’t think it would happen so quickly. As a case in point, the soldiers assigned to the crucifixion duty, shattered the knees of the other two men who had been crucified with Jesus. This was something they did to hasten the demise of their victims. When the men weren’t able to push themselves up to catch a breath any longer they quickly suffocated. It was actually an act of mercy. The soldiers didn’t have to smash Jesus’ legs, though. Because He was already dead.
I should add an extra note to this point. The soldiers into whose hands Jesus was given were professional executioners. They did this kind of thing regularly. They knew exactly what they were doing. They had done it enough times they knew how to tell the difference between a living body and a dead one. More than that, their lives depended on knowing the difference. If they crucified someone and that person wound up still alive when they were done, they would have been executed themselves for a dereliction of duty.
Third, and related to that, when Pilate received Joseph’s request, he didn’t believe Jesus was really dead, so he sent the centurion in charge to investigate to confirm things. He came back and confirmed that, yes, Jesus really was dead. Had he done that and then Jesus was found to have not really been dead, it would have been his job – and possibly his life – on the line for making a false report to Pilate. I’m sure there was enough of a headache as it was when the reports began to come in about the empty tomb a couple of days later.
Fourth, when Mark writes that Pilate gave Jesus’ body to Joseph, he doesn’t use the same word for “body” that he did early in the passage. In v. 43, Mark uses the general word for body. It can refer to any kind of body including living bodies, dead bodies, heavenly bodies, and so on and so forth. Our word “body” covers about the same lexical range as the Greek word, soma. In v. 45, though, when Pilate gives the body to Joseph, Mark doesn’t use the same word. He uses the word ptoma. Helpfully, the CSB translation (along with the ESV and The Message) uses the word “corpse” here instead of “body” like the NIV or KJV do. This is because the word ptoma refers specifically to a dead body, like the carcass of an animal. Mark wouldn’t have chosen this word unless Jesus really was dead.
There is more evidence than this, including the profound unlikelihood of Jesus’ being able to survive the ordeal of the cross even if he hadn’t been killed on it without immediate medical attention, whereas Joseph took his body and sealed it in an airtight tomb, but here are four key pieces of evidence just from these three verses. The bottom line here is that Jesus was really dead when they took His body down from the cross. Any conspiracy theories to the contrary are nothing more than that. What this means for us, is that our sins really were covered. His sacrifice was completed and sin’s price was paid. Life and a right relationship with the Father were now available to anyone who sought them. Jesus’ death may have been the gravest injustice ever committed by men, but it’s a very good thing it was because now He lives again and so can we. The only question is: Have you received the life He offers?