In the middle of scenes of Jesus’ resurrection, the Gospel of Matthew recounts the birth of one of the oldest conspiracy theories.
On Easter morning, while the women are on their way to announce the resurrection of Jesus to the disciples, Matthew 28:11–15 highlights another movement: Some tomb guards report the weekend’s events to the chief priests. These men, in turn, then consult with the elders and decide together to conceal what has happened. At no point do they investigate what happened to Jesus’ body. They know from the start that what they might discover will not please them.
Instead, they invent what would today be called a conspiracy theory, with the “alternative facts” that support it: The disciples came to steal Jesus’ corpse. Never mind that those who had fled in fear after the arrest of their master would have needed to come at night to face a guard of several armed men. Never mind that they would have needed to loosen the seals on the tomb, roll away a massive stone, and remove the body of Jesus—all without waking anyone who could raise the alarm.
This version of the facts is absurd. Not only in and of itself, but because the disciples would later risk their lives to proclaim that Jesus had risen. If they had known it was a lie, where would they have found the courage to face the authorities threatening them? Why preach a knowingly falsified gospel? The audacity of the apostles, their courage, their zeal, their perseverance, and the whole expansion of Christianity is inexplicable without the Resurrection.
But all this, the elders do not yet know. So they try their luck and make a deal with the soldiers. The proposed lie is not without danger for them—the guards obviously weren’t supposed to fall asleep—but there is money involved, and the Jewish leaders assure them of their protection.
Thus, this version of the story, the text says, has spread among the Jews to this present day—the first century of our current era. But it is also our reality today, where theories to eschew the truth of the resurrection of Jesus continue to be propagated.
But it is probably not because of their credibility that these explanations persist. In fact, the explanation of the guards is so implausible that the apostle Matthew takes the liberty of mentioning it in his gospel, knowing full well that anyone who wanted could go and check this account.
When you want to drown out a truth, your lies or half-truths don’t have to be believable or well-founded. It is enough that your version suits what your listeners want to hear or avoids confronting them with a reality that disturbs them.
An ominous light
One might be surprised at the response of the Jewish leaders. The one announced to be the Messiah had just come back to life. An extraordinary miracle! A staggering truth! But instead of euphoria, they react with anger.