Like everything else in religion the answer depends on who you ask.
The canonical gospels are unanimous that after his death the body of Jesus was buried in a tomb (Mark 15:42-47; Matt 27:57-61; Luke 23:50-56; John 19:38-42). Mark says that later the tomb was found to be empty and the body gone. A young man sitting in the tomb said Jesus had risen and the disciples would find him in Galilee (16:5-7). Matthew says the tomb was empty and the body gone. An angel told those who came to the tomb that Jesus had risen and the disciples could find him in Galilee (28:5-7). Matthew adds that the women met Jesus on the way and took hold of his feet (28:9), so the “body” was in a state that could be grasped physically. John says that the tomb was empty (20:1-9). Jesus was present on four occasions afterward (20:11-18, 19-23, 26-29; 21:1-23). His “body” appears to have been capable of being touched physically, as John describes the encounters (20:24-27). Luke says that the tomb was empty (24:3). Two men by the tomb reminded the women that he had said he would rise (24:6-8, 24-23). Jesus was present on two occasions after the tomb had been found empty (24:13-31, 33-49); he was described as being physically present on those occasions (24:39-43). Matthew, Mark, and John raise the question: So what ultimately happened to Jesus’ body? These gospels never say. In Luke’s second volume (Acts), however, there is a hint that the body may not have been simply physical, for Jesus ascends to heaven (Acts 1:9-11), something that a physical body could not do (1 Cor 15:50).
There is, however, a suggestion in the Gospel of Matthew that the body could have been stolen (Matt 27:62-66), and a hint in John that his body might have been taken away and disposed of by the authorities (John 20:13).
Paul simply rules out that the risen body of Jesus was physical when he says that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God for the perishable cannot inherit the imperishable (1 Cor 15:50). Hence, Jesus’ perishable physical body was placed in the tomb, but raised an imperishable spiritual body (1 Cor 15:42-57), as all believers likewise will “be changed” (1 Cor 15:51-52).
John Dominick Crossan has a different take on the body of Jesus. Here are two brief quotations from his book:
With regard to the body of Jesus, by Easter Sunday morning those who cared did not know where it was, and those who knew did not care. Why should even the soldiers themselves remember the death and disposal of a nobody? (p. 158).
Roman crucifixion was state terrorism; that its function was to deter resistance or revolt, especially among the lower classes; and that the body was usually left on the cross to be consumed eventually by the wild beasts. No wonder we have found only one body from all those thousands crucified around Jerusalem in that single century. Remember those dogs. And if you seek the heart of darkness, follow the dogs (p. 127).
In other words, his body, if not eaten by wild beasts, simply decomposed.
This is similar to what Albert Schweitzer wrote:
In the knowledge that he is the coming Son of Man [Jesus] lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn and He throws Himself upon it. Then it does turn; and crushes Him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions, He has destroyed them. The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the one immeasurably great Man, who was strong enough to think of Himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind and to bend history to His purpose, is hanging upon it still. That is His victory and His reign (pp. 370-71).
In the Catholic tradition today the elements of the Mass (bread and wine) metamorphose into the “body of Christ” and Jesus is risen into the Mass; bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ.
The eminent New Testament scholar and German Lutheran had this to say about the body of Jesus: Jesus has risen into the preaching of the church:
Christ meets us in the preaching as one crucified and risen. He meets us in the word of preaching and nowhere else. The faith of Easter is just this—faith in the word of preaching (p. 41).
Were you to ask me to answer the question, as a twenty-first century human being I might say: Today Jesus exists in time and space as a body of literature, art, music, church buildings, and religious communities. With that statement I find myself in good company: The early Christian apostle, Paul, thought of a gathering (ecclesia) of Jesus’ followers as the “body” of Christ (1 Cor 12:27).
How do you answer the question: what happened to Jesus’ body?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
Bultmann, Rudolf, “New Testament and Mythology,” pp. 1-44 in Kerygma and Myth (edited by Hans Werner Bartsch; New York: Harper and Row, 1953/1961).
Crossan, Dominick, Jesus. A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: Harper, 1994).
Schweitzer, Albert, The Quest of the Historical Jesus. A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede (New York: Macmillan, 1968 [German original 1906]).