The question “Who moved the stone?” is used by Christian apologists to raise an objection against some skeptical theories about the alleged resurrection of Jesus, especially the Swoon Theory (see Objection #7 in Handbook of Christian Apologetics by Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, p.183-184), but also the Conspiracy Theory, and the Hallucination Theory.
The objection consists mostly of attempted refutations of various natural explanations for the movement of the “large stone” away from the entrance to the tomb of Jesus, an event the Gospels indicate took place early on the first Easter Sunday.
Jesus, if he had survived his crucifixion, would have been too weak and frail to move the large stone himself (they claim), and his (allegedly) unarmed disciples would not have been able to overpower the Roman soldiers who (allegedly) were guarding the tomb, and (allegedly) neither the Roman soldiers nor the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem would have allowed anyone to open up the tomb by moving the stone away from its entrance. In the Handbook of Christian Apologetics, Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli conclude that an angel must have moved the large stone (p.183).
There is a lot going on in this objection, so I’m not going to provide a complete response to it here. However, I will focus on one particular problem with this objection:
We don’t know the size, weight, or shape of the stone placed at the entrance to the tomb of Jesus.
We also don’t KNOW that Jesus was buried in a stone tomb, or even that Jesus actually existed. But those are significant topics requiring more discussion and thought than I plan to get into here. For now, I will grant the questionable assumptions that Jesus existed, that Jesus was crucified, and that he was then buried in a stone tomb.
Even granting those assumptions, there are still plenty of problems with the “Who Moved the Stone?” objection to the Swoon Theory. One significant problem is our ignorance about the size, weight, and shape of the stone.
The Gospels provide no specific description or details about the stone. Here is what the Gospel of Mark says about the stone:
1. When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.
2. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.
3. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”
4. When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.(Mark 16:1-4, NRSV Updated Edition)
The author of the Gospel of Mark was not one of the twelve disciples of Jesus and makes no claim to have ever seen or heard Jesus, or to have seen the tomb of Jesus. So, this “information” that the stone was “very large” is second or third or fourth-hand information. The Gospel of Mark was written about 70 C.E., which is four decades after Jesus was allegedly crucified and buried. Most eyewitnesses of the crucifixion or burial of Jesus were already dead by the time the Gospel of Mark was written.
The author of Mark also does not explain how or from whom he got this information, so this might well simply be a story that was handed down by word of mouth for four decades. It is quite likely that even if Jesus existed, was crucified, and was buried in a stone tomb, this story in Mark contains a good deal of legend or fiction, and thus it is unreasonable to assume this “information” about Jesus’ tomb to be accurate and reliable.
Furthermore, the claim that the stone was “very large” is VAGUE. Does that mean that the stone was at least four feet tall? or five feet tall? or six feet tall? Does that mean that the stone weighed at least 1,000 pounds? or 2,000 pounds? or 3,000 pounds? We don’t know, and the Gospels don’t provide us with such details. But in order for us to rationally evaluate this objection against the Swoon Theory, such details seem important.
Although we do not KNOW the size, weight, or shape of the stone, we can make educated guesses about the RANGE of the size, RANGE of the weight, and about the likely shape (or shapes) of the stone. So, that is what I shall do here in this post.
First, there were two main kinds of “blocking stones” used in and near Jerusalem in the Second Temple period (c. 516 B.C.E.–C.E. 70) when Jesus allegedly existed: circular and square (see “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb? in Biblical Archeology Review: https://www.baslibrary.org/biblical-archaeology-review/25/5/1 ).
The circular stones were like stone wheels. The square stones were basically cuboids but were smaller at one end, so they would fit snuggly (like a cork) into the rectangular entrance of a tomb. The circular blocking stones were very rare and only used on the tombs of kings and very rich and powerful families. The square blocking stones were much more common in and near Jerusalem in Jesus’ time (see: “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?”).
Based on archeology, the stone at the entrance of Jesus’ tomb was probably a square stone. However, the Gospels indicate that the stone was “rolled” away from Jesus’ tomb, indicating that it was a circular stone (Mark 15:46, and 16:3-4, Matthew 27:60 and 28:2, Luke 24:2). So, it is unclear whether the stone was circular or square in shape.
Because the phrase “very large” is VAGUE, we need another way to determine the size of the stone. Archeology of tombs in and near Jerusalem provides us with some helpful information.
The creators of the ESV Study Bible sought experts to help them “reconstruct what Golgotha [the location of Jesus’ crucifixion] and the tomb would have looked like.”:
So we [the creators of the ESV Study Bible] employed the skills of archaeological architect Leen Ritmeyer, widely considered the world’s leading authority on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. Dr. Ritmeyer was the chief architect of the Temple Mount Excavations which took place in Jerusalem after the Six-Day War. He served in a similar capacity in the Jewish Quarter Excavations and also in the City of David Excavations, producing important reconstruction drawings for all of them and for many other sites in Israel and Bible Lands.“What Did Calvary Look Like? An Interview with Leen Ritmeyer (Part 1)” by Justin Taylor https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/what-did-calvary-look-like-interview/
In an interview about the tomb of Jesus, Dr. Ritmeyer was asked about the entrances to tombs at the time and place where Jesus (allegedly) existed:
How big would have been the entrance to the tomb?
Tomb entrances, even those with rolling stones, were rather small, about 2.5–3 feet high and 2–2.5 feet wide. There was no need to make the entrance larger as it was only used during burials. Smaller entrances are also easier to close off. The fact that the disciples had to stoop to look in (Luke 24:12; John 20:5; John 20:11) is in perfect harmony with the archaeological record of tomb architecture of that time.“What Did Jesus’ Tomb Look Like? An Interview with Leen Ritmeyer (Part 2)” by Justin Taylor https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/what-did-jesus-tomb-look-like-interview/
This information gives us a RANGE on the size of the entrance to Jesus’ tomb. If the tomb entrance was small, it would have been about 2.0 feet wide and 2.5 feet tall. If the tomb entrance was large, it would have been about 2.5 feet wide by 3.0 feet tall.
We don’t know if the entrance to the tomb of Jesus was small or large, so it could have been either small or large or somewhere in between small and large. Suppose the entrance was small. In that case it would have been about 2.0 feet wide and 2.5 feet tall. From this information we can calculate the size of a stone needed to block such a small entrance.
If a circular stone was used at Jesus’ tomb, and if the entrance was a small rectangular opening 2.0 feet wide and 2.5 feet tall, then a circle that would cover that rectangular opening would be about 3.2 feet in diameter, because the diameter would need to cover the points farthest apart on the rectangle, which would be the corners that are diagonal from each other (for example the upper left corner to the lower right corner of the entrance):
a = 2.5 feet
b = 2.0 feet
a2 + b2 = c2
(2.5)2 + (2.0)2 = c2
6.25 + 4.0 = c2
10.25 = c2
c = 3.20 feet
Therefore, if the entrance to Jesus’ tomb was small and it had a circular blocking stone, the stone would have been about 3.2 feet in diameter.
How much would a circular blocking stone that was 3.2 feet in diameter weigh? We also need to know how thick the stone was. Many circular blocking stones were about one foot thick, but this would be a small circular blocking stone, so it might well only be 10 inches thick. How much would a circular blocking stone that was 3.2 feet in diameter and 10 inches thick weigh? It depends on the type of stone it was made out of.
The stone might have been made out of granite or limestone. We don’t know which sort of stone it was made out of. Granite weighs between 159 pounds and 180 pounds per cubic foot. Limestone is not as dense, and weighs as little as 150 pounds per cubic foot:
How many cubic feet of stone is contained in a circular blocking stone that is 3.2 feet in diameter (1.6 feet in radius) and 10 inches (.83333 feet) thick?
The volume would be about 6.7 cubic feet.
Since we don’t know whether the blocking stone was granite or limestone, it might well have been made out of limestone (the same material as the tombs). In that case it could have weighed about 150 pounds per cubic foot. Thus, if the blocking stone for Jesus’ tomb was 3.2 feet in diameter (1.6 feet in radius) and 10 inches thick (.8333 feet), and if it was made out of limestone, it would have weighed about 1,005 pounds:
6.7 cubic feet x 150 pounds/cubic foot = 1,005 pounds
Obviously, if the stone had a larger diameter and/or a greater thickness and/or was made from granite, then it could have weighed significantly more than 1,005 pounds. But we don’t KNOW that it had a larger diameter or a greater thickness or was made of granite. So, we don’t know that it weighed more than 1,005 pounds.
For all we know, the stone at the entrance of Jesus’ tomb weighed only about 1,005 pounds. Therefore, the claim that the stone weighed 2,000 or 3,000 pounds is based on assumptions that we don’t know to be true.
Of course, we also don’t know that the size of the entrance to Jesus’ tomb was 2.0 feet wide and 2.5 feet tall, but we have good reason to believe that it was at least that wide and at least that tall. So, we can reasonably conclude that if the blocking stone at Jesus’ tomb was a circular stone, then it weighed at least 1,005 pounds. It could have weighed more than that, we just don’t have enough information to conclude that it did in fact weigh more than that.
Can just one person push a circular stone that weighs 1,005 pounds? The answer to this question is YES! A circular stone is basically a WHEEL, and wheels make it easy to move heavy objects. For example, my car weighs about 3,500 pounds (without any passengers or cargo in it). When I stop my car on level pavement, put the transmission in neutral, turn off the engine, and release the parking brake, I can easily push my car forward for a few feet in just a few seconds, all by myself.
I am not a weightlifter, nor do I work out at a gym. I sit in front of a computer screen or TV screen most of the day, and the only regular exercise I get is a two-mile walk in the morning. I am not a strong or muscular person, but it is EASY for me to push my 3,500-pound car for a few feet in a few seconds.
I cannot, of course, LIFT a 3,500-pound car up off the ground. But nobody needed to LIFT the stone at the entrance of Jesus’ tomb up off the ground in order to move it. It only needed to be ROLLED for a couple of feet to one side, to open the entrance to the tomb.
Furthermore, a number of strong men were each able to all by themselves push and move a structure that weighed 20,000 pounds over 100 feet in just one minute, because that weight rested on a number of cylindrical wheels. This was documented at a strongman competition called “The Wheel of Pain” in 2019:
Two strong men were each able to all by themselves pull a 50,000-pound semi-truck for several feet along a level sidewalk:
Kevin Fast was able to pull a 39-ton house on a wheeled trailer for a Guinness Book world record in 2010:
Kevin Fast was also able to pull a 109-ton vehicle for 100 feet for a Guinness Book world record in 2017:
Kevin Fast was able to pull a 208-ton aircraft for 28 feet on its wheels for a Guinness Book world record in 2009:
Can just one person move a circular stone (shaped like a wheel) a couple of feet in one minute, if that stone weighs 1,005 pounds? Clearly, this would be an easy task for most adults who are not physically disabled or handicapped.
Since we don’t know whether the entrance to Jesus’ tomb was small (i.e. 2.0 feet wide by 2.5 feet tall) or large (i.e. 2.5 feet wide by 3.0 feet tall) or somewhere in between, it is not reasonable to assume that a circular stone used to cover the entrance of the tomb would have been any larger than 3.2 feet in diameter and 10 inches thick.
It is possible, however, that the entrance to Jesus’ tomb was large (i.e. 2.5 feet wide by 3.0 feet tall). How large would a circular stone need to be in order to cover a rectangular entrance that was 2.5 feet wide and 3.0 feet tall?
a = 3.0 feet
b = 2.5 feet
a2 + b2 = c2
(3.0)2 + (2.5)2 = c2
9.0 + 6.25 = c2
15.25 = c2
c = 3.905 feet diameter of circular stone: 3.905 feet
Since this is a larger circular blocking stone, it would likely be about 1.0 foot thick. Let’s assume that this larger stone is a little bit bigger than the bare minimum of 3.9 feet in diameter. Let’s assume it would be 4.0 feet in diameter.
How much volume would this larger circular stone occupy?
The volume of the larger circular stone (4.0 feet in diameter, 2.0 feet in radius, 1.0 feet thick) would be 12.57 cubic feet.
How much would such a large circular stone weigh?
If it was limestone, it might weigh as little as 150 pounds per cubic foot:
12.57 cubic feet x 150.0 pounds/cubic foot = 1,886 pounds
If it was granite, it could weigh as little as 159 pounds per cubic foot:
12.57 cubic feet x 159.0 pounds/cubic foot = 1,999 pounds
If it was dense granite, it could weigh up to 180 pounds per cubic foot:
12.57 cubic feet x 180.0 pounds/cubic foot = 2,263 pounds
Therefore, a circular stone that would cover a larger tomb entrance (i.e. 2.5 feet wide by 3.0 feet tall) would weigh somewhere between 1,800 pounds and 2,300 pounds.
Could just one person move a circular stone that was 4.0 feet in diameter (2.0 feet in radius) and 1.0 feet thick for two feet in one minute or less? Again, the answer is clearly YES! I can easily move my 3,500-pound car several feet in just a few seconds. I can’t LIFT my 3,500-pound car up off the ground, but I can ROLL my car several feet with ease. That is because it is on wheels.
Since one very strong man named Kevin Fast can and did (in 2009) pull an aircraft weighing 208 TONS for 28 feet (because the aircraft was on wheels), I am certain that I (and any other adult who was not disabled or handicapped) could move a circular stone (shaped like a wheel) that was 4.0 feet in diameter and 1.0 foot thick, and that weighed one ton for just two feet in less than a minute without any serious effort or difficulty.
TO BE CONTINUED…