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The Great Grave Robbery
Written August 7, 2016

I still sometimes shiver when I reflect on what we have done and what it has caused.  At the urging of my accomplices Joe and Laz, I have written this memoir that there may be a record of our deeds.  But my words must remain hidden away!  Until the end of the age!

This story concerns the death of the late Jesus of Nazareth.

My accomplice Joe is known to others as Joseph of Arimathea.  Because he and I are both members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court, we had to conceal our private hopes that Jesus might prove to be the promised Messiah.

Laz is better known as Lazarus of Bethany.  He has written an account of how he “died” with the help of his friend Mordecai and then came back to life, a demonstration performed by Jesus to show his power and rehearse his own “resurrection.”

And my name is Nicodemus.

Second Childhood

Once I had a private nighttime interview with Jesus.  He told me, “No one can see the Kingdom of God unless he has been born again.”

I was reminded of the words sung by our prized noble poet, “He not busy being born is busy dying.”

Obviously, I objected, you don’t literally mean that.  No one climbs back into his mother’s womb to emerge a second time.  So what does “born again” mean?

I recalled that Jesus once welcomed little children to his preaching with the words, “Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.”  I asked him, “Does that mean your Kingdom is filled with naïve and credulous toddlers?  To become ‘born again,’ do we need to erase the knowledge we’ve gained growing up and replace those facts with faith, accepting whatever fairy stories our elders tell us?  Is that what you mean?”

“You must be born from spirit,” he answered.  “Spirit is not a material object.  It’s like the wind; you hear it blowing, but you can’t see where it comes from or where it’s going.”  That didn’t exactly answer my question.

“Good” Friday

Most of my Sanhedrin colleagues thought Jesus was a dangerous rabble-rouser.  They arranged for the Romans to arrest and crucify him.  But had a plan.  He would fake his death on the cross.  He would be “laid to rest” — Joe would provide the tomb and I would supply the burial spices — and then come back to life as foretold in the scriptures.     

Unfortunately, as Laz explains, the unexpected happened.  A soldier stabbed Jesus as he hung on the cross, blood and water poured out, and Jesus actually died.  Mordecai tried unsuccessfully to revive him inside the tomb.

Plan B

The next day was the Sabbath.  Joe and I discretely met with Laz to discuss what had happened, and Mordecai was there to report his failure.  We were devastated, of course.  Jesus was dead and buried.  Had his dream of the Kingdom of God died with him?

Laz suggested that we could still fake the resurrection in a different way.  We could hide the body somewhere else, then point to the empty grave.

We agreed to try.  A couple of hours after sundown, we went to the cemetery.  There was one slight problem:  a guard was standing in front of the tomb.

“Good evening, gentlemen,” the Roman soldier said suspiciously.  “Is there something I can do for you?”

“We have merely come to pay our respects to the dead, sir,” I said.

“In the middle of the night?  Would you be so kind as to identify yourselves?”

We gave him fake identities.  “And what is your name, sir, if I may ask?”

“I am Sergeant Placus.”

“Oh, a non-commissioned officer.  Does that rank pay well?”

“As a tesserarius I am paid 50 percent more than a common soldier.”

“But I suppose you could always use some extra spending money.”

“Who would not?”

“Perhaps we could be of assistance, if you were to assist us.

“What would I have to do?”

“Nothing.  Just go over to the north side of the cemetery in response to a noise.  Your investigation should require ten minutes or so.  After finding nothing, you can return to your post here.”

“That sounds simple enough.  And for your part?”

“We will give you 20 pieces of silver.”

“Make it 25, and you have a deal.”  Joe counted out the money, and Placus left us without another word.

A heavy stone blocked the entrance to the tomb.  We all put our shoulders to it and rolled it aside.  Joe and I were nervous about our macabre scheme, and we didn’t want to render ourselves unclean by touching a corpse.  It was Laz and Mordecai who went inside the tomb, removed the grave cloth and folded it neatly, and carried the body out.

They took the remains to another gravesite that Joe happened to own, an inconspicuous shallow one on the south edge of the cemetery.  There we covered the body with earth and said a brief prayer, and the four of us went our separate ways.

The Third Day

Early the next morning, Laz’s idea came to fruition.  Some women who knew Jesus came to visit his tomb.  They found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty.  From this circumstantial evidence, Jesus’s disciples — especially the excitable and superstitious among them — concluded that he had risen!

Their claim caused a small sensation, and our Sanhedrin met in special session to determine what had actually happened.  We summoned the guard who had been on duty.  Sergeant Placus seemed surprised to encounter Joe and me again, this time sitting there as members of the court, but he gave no sign of recognition.  He reported that he had left his post briefly to investigate a noise.  Apparently a resurrection took place while he was gone, because when he returned to the tomb it was open and empty.

The priests objected, “No, no, there was no resurrection.  We may no longer possess a corpse, but we mustn’t allow people to think this proves Jesus was divine.  Suppose you were to change your story slightly.  Just say that you fell asleep, and Jesus’s evil disciples sneaked in and stole his body.  Nothing supernatural happened.”

“I am a Roman soldier.  I cannot afford to tell an untruth.”

“We will make it worth your while.  How does 30 pieces of silver sound?  And if you get in trouble with your superiors for sleeping on duty, we’ll take care of it.”

Highest Authority

Jesus’s disciples heard about this and accused the priests of subornation of perjury.  The matter reached the ears of the emperor Claudius.  To forestall future disputes of this sort, he wrote a letter to his local officials decreeing the death penalty for any future mischief involving mortal remains.

In our region, the emperor’s instructions were promulgated by translating his letter into Greek.  The key sentences were engraved on a slab of marble, posted in a public place outdoors.  You can read it to this day.

In 1878 a private collector bought this tablet from an antiquities dealer in Nazareth.  Therefore it’s known as the “Nazareth Inscription.”  It’s now in the collections of the Louvre.

No one knows where it came from originally, and it bears neither date nor signature.

Could it be a forgery?  Highly unlikely, say the experts.  It’s real.

Of course, the decree might have been prompted by other ghoulish incidents.  Therefore, its existence doesn’t prove that one particular incident, the alleged resurrection of Jesus, actually happened.

A translation into English:

 
Those women spoke the truth when they first found the empty grave:  “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

No one knows where.  Not even the twice-compensated sergeant knows.   Only Joe and Laz and Mordecai and I know, and we’ll never tell.

You say we lie.  You say Jesus miraculously rose from the dead.

How do you know?  Because you read about it in a book?  Were you there?

Were you there when we laid him in the tomb?

Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.

 

 

(a retelling of certain Bible passages, including John 3:1-8 and 19:38-20:9 as well as Matthew 19:14, 27:62-66, and 28:11-15)

Click here for other Bible stories I've retold in the first person.

TBT

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