Gospel Disproof #38: The guards at the tomb


At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, there’s an interesting story that appears nowhere else in the Bible. According to Matthew, the chief priests were worried that the disciples might steal Jesus’ body to fake a resurrection, so they went to Pilate and got permission to post a guard on the tomb. When Jesus rose from the dead, the guards reported it to the priests, and the priests bribed them to claim that disciples stole the body while they were asleep. And thus, says Matthew, the Jews were reporting “to this day” that the body was stolen by the disciples.

Cool story, bro, but if you look at it a bit more closely, there’s something kinda fishy about it…

Let’s imagine, just for a moment, that disciples really did take the body, and everybody knew it. Suppose you were a Christian, and it really upset you that all the Jews in Palestine were telling people that disciples took Jesus body. How would you answer that? Could you deny it? Could you just make up a plausible-sounding story that would convince people (or at least yourself) that it was a lie?

If you’ve had a bunch of theological debates, then you’ve probably seen this happen: you back somebody into a corner, and instead of being convinced, they just make stuff up to solve the problem. Not all believers do this, of course, but some do, and it’s not all that uncommon. It’s not even limited to believers: anybody caught in a jam is prone to invent whatever he or she needs to invent in order to justify whatever they feel the need to justify. (Ask a traffic cop some time.)

Now look at Matthew’s account here and here. What’s the source for this story? Matthew doesn’t claim that God miraculously revealed it, either to himself or to someone else. It’s not a dream or a vision that someone had. Nor is it likely that either the guards or the Sanhedrin came knocking on Matthew’s door and confessed their crimes to him. It just poof, shows up spontaneously, to meet the need. And Matthew himself tells us what the need was: too many people were saying the empty tomb had a perfectly ordinary explanation.

Then too, look at the story itself.

And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, and said, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’”

Christian apologists themselves will give you all kinds of reasons why this story is false. If the guards were asleep, how would they know who stole the body? Duh! But apologists try to say this means that the guards were lying, when a moment’s thought ought to show that it’s really Matthew who’s telling a whopper. Seriously, all these master plotters and conspirators matching wits against the Roman Empire and God Himself, and the best they can come up with is an obviously stupid story like that?

The problem Matthew is facing is that by putting the guards around the tomb, he’s creating a narrative in which the guards are the only actual eyewitnesses to the resurrection itself. He can’t write a Gospel in which the only eyewitnesses are giving plausible testimony about the disciples stealing the body. So he gives them a stupid testimony instead, sacrificing realism for agenda.

But back up a page. Why are the guards supposedly there in the first place? According to Matt. 27, “the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered together with Pilate, and said, “Sir, we remember that when He was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I am to rise again.’” Think about that. Over and over, we’re told that Jesus made veiled remarks in public, and explicit declarations in private, predicting his death and resurrection—and nobody understood. The New Testament is quite explicit: they thought he was talking about something else, and even mocked him on the cross, still misunderstanding him. Even after the resurrection (according to the story), it took the disciples a long time to catch on that Jesus was supposed to die and rise again.

Yet here Matthew is telling us that the unbelieving Pharisees, using only misunderstood metaphorical references to a resurrection, figured out before any of the disciples did that someday there was going to be a resurrection story. Anachronism much?

And does this story really make sense? You believe that Jesus is the true Messiah. You believe he’s God Incarnate. Then you see him die. You’re really going to get together, at a time like this, to fake the resurrection of an obviously false Messiah? Yet Matthew wants us to believe that the Sanhedrin was seriously worried that this might happen—worried enough to go to a Gentile governor during the Passover just to get someone to guard a dead man.

Not only that, but look at the timing:

Now on the next day, the day after the preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered together with Pilate…

They’re too late! Jesus’ body has already been unguarded all night. Considering that one of the things Jesus was executed for was his relaxed attitude towards Sabbath prohibitions, there has been ample opportunity for some small group of unnamed disciples to get to the unguarded tomb, remove the body, and get away before the Sanhedrin even asked for a guard. Even if they had posted a belated guard, once the body was gone then their excuse would be “disciples took it before we got there,” not “disciples took it while we were sleeping on the job.” Matthew screwed up again.

It’s just not a plausible story. We know it’s intended to deny that disciples took the body, because that’s what Matthew tells us it “proves.” And as a form of denial, it’s psychologically effective for believers.

As reliable history, though, it really sucks.

 

Comments

  1. CJO says

    Another absurdity (beyond the very notion that anyone would give credence to a report of an entire cohort falling asleep while on guard duty) is that the legionaries accept a bribe to falsely confess a lapse for which they would have been summarily executed.

    Also, what makes this pericope an especially good Gospel disproof is the blatant contradiction it creates with Matthew’s source material, Mark. Mark has the women procuring funeral goods and proceeding to the tomb early Sunday morning with the intention of dressing the body. They wonder who will roll the stone away for them, indicating clearly that they are aware of conditions at the tomb. But if there are guards at the tomb, they would know full well that they wouldn’t be able to have access because the express purpose of the guard in Matthew is to prevent anyone handling the corpse.

    The author of Matthew was aware of this too, as we can see by comparing the two passages:

    Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.
    (Matthew 28:1 ESV, my emphasis)

    When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.
    (Mark 16:1 ESV)

    He has to change the stated reason for visiting the tomb. They know they’re not going to be able to annoint the body; they’re just on a fact-finding mission. So if there were guards, Mark’s account is clearly false because the given motivation of the women is incoherent. And obviously if there were not guards the account in Matthew is false. Also, the author of Matthew typically suppresses the irony found throughout Mark. In this instance the irony is that Jesus was already annointed for burial, by another woman, days before, at Bethany (Mark 14:3). It has the women pointedly failing to understand the import of this action, just as had the disciples at the time, who complained that the costly ointment could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. The author of Matthew, here and elsewhere, either doesn’t get the irony, or has no use for the technique, but it shows how literary and apologetic concerns easily trump any putative historical constraints on the narratives.

    Taken as a whole, the contradictions and inconsistencies in the whole set of canonical resurrection narratives are so clearly the result of this kind of apologetic tinkering and theological reinterpretation that it’s easy to see that the accounts are not constrained by historical memory.

    • mikespeir says

      They try to get around the problem of Roman guards taking a bribe to confess to something that would get them executed by suggesting is was actually a temple guard that was employed. In the first place, it’s hard to stretch the text to make it say that. It’s Pilate who seems to be issuing the guard. That means it would be a Roman squad. Then, why would the Jewish authorities need to check with Pilate to post a watch of their own on the grave of an executed criminal? Did Pilate have to give permission every time somebody wanted to stand around and keep an eye on something?

      • CJO says

        Nope. It won’t work.

        Now, they might have a point if the only word used was the one used in 27 and translated “guard” or “watch”: koustodia, because it’s a strange word, a loan from Latin*, not very well attested in the Koine in general, and otherwise unique in the NT.

        But it’s not. In 28, in the exact passage about the bribe, the members of the guard are referred to as stratiotai, a Greek word that unambiguously meant “infantry soldiers”.

        *And actually the very fact that it’s a Latin loan argues for a military connotation, as loans into Greek from Latin were often military terminology introduced to the East by the Roman army.

  2. Bob Jase says

    Retro-conned history is a bitch.

    I still believe Bucky Barnes is dead.

    Everything you’ve said makes perfect sense, if there even was a Jesus’s corpse to steal from the tomb. A corpse disappearing and a Jesus impersonator (why else wouldn’t his disciples recognised him) are a lot more believable in the real world.

    • jakc says

      Finally, an important topic! Used to be the one thing you could count on in the Marvel Universe was the death of Bucky. And now apparently, they’ve brought him back

  3. rikitiki says

    For me, thinking about the different resurrection tales and contradictions, etc, put me in mind of how hugely off-kilter the whole story is. IF the chief priests and Pharisees were sooo worried about Jesus and his band that they finagled to have him crucified, then OF COURSE they would make sure to set someone spying on the disciples AFTER the crucifixion to make sure the martyrdom didn’t spur one of Jesus’s followers into becoming even more of a pain (as sometimes happens: after the head gets martyred, one of the followers becomes a zealot and is even worse for the opposition). If this was true history, it’d have a bit in there about that spy relating to the priests that Jesus was backkk! But nothing!

  4. Tio Papo says

    Doing some research for a jail class came to this article and the comments: Think about this…1-The disciples were Jews that wouldn’t be necessary eager to be caught stealing Jesus body on the Sabbath; Jesus death and burial was close to Friday 6 PM when the Sabbath started. 2-Mathew doesn’t make the story up, there were two witnesses, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary”.-The narration of two women being the witness goes against common sense for the times were women’s testimony was thought as unreliable. 3- The soldiers were told to say this(the bribe) to JEWS…not to the Roman army. Who cares what the Jews say from a Roman perspective. What the soldiers told their supervisors was accepted by the roman army, either that or they got theirs; in either case the Bible is silent and anything you can come up there is speculation. 4-There is little doubt that Jesus is recognized by many historical sources as “the miracle worker” and if there are arguments against those that are logically reproofs we don’t have them from the Jews themselves; like the resurrection of Lazarus; the many healings Jesus performed. I mean, those were acknowledged as miracles by the same people who crucified him, and they still made up their own version as to the source of the healings, not the miracles themselves!. Would Matthew, in light of what the Pharisees usually were responding about Jesus’s miracles all along, be using here a “new” concocted lie about their continuous motives to discredit Jesus? I think it is a better perspective that they would do this exactly! 5- If the resurrection seems “too much of a miracle” then use the same methodology to disproof all of Jesus’s miracles according to the history available you can find.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Hi Tio, thanks for stopping by. I think you make a good point about Jews not wanting to be caught stealing the body. That’s why they would be likely to not confess having done it, even to other disciples. They would have to steal Jesus’ body without the knowledge or consent of disciples like Peter and John, and then never admit that they’d done it, which would explain why the rest of the disciples were so surprised to find the tomb empty and the body missing.

      Your other points, sadly, are standard Christian apologetics with all the usual flaws. There are many ways we can see, for instance, that the story of the guards was invented by Matthew. Notice, for example, the absence of any guards from any of the other gospels. This is not just a detail that the other writers neglect to report—their stories would have been different had there been any guards at the tomb. In John’s gospel, for instance, Mary arrives at the tomb and finds it empty, and runs weeping and distraught to the other disciples because she does not know where the body is. Had there been any guards at the tomb, she would have asked them what happened to the body. The guards would not have deserted their post, of course—at best they’d have send one guard to report to the Pharisees and ask for further instructions, but they would not have deserted. And they had no reason not to tell anybody what had happened, since that order was not given until after they left the tomb (according to Matthew), so they’d have told her Jesus rose from the dead. But instead, Mary’s first reports were that the body was inexplicably missing, which means that in John’s gospel the guards were definitely not there.

      Likewise even in Matthew’s gospel, the story of the guards shows many signs of having been invented long after the original gospel stories began to circulate. Notice, for example, that the story of the women is entirely separate from the story of the guards: the women never observe or interact with the guards, and the guards never observe or interact with the women. You could say, “Well, the guards didn’t know the women arrived, since they fainted when the angel appeared and rolled away the stone,” but then you have the problem that the guards reported to the Pharisees everything that happened including everything the angel said while they were “unconscious.” That means that either they recovered from their faint in time to observe everything they reported, including the women, or else Matthew is simply lying.

      And in fact, we see Christians spontaneously inventing stories all the time, in order to bolster their faith, so if Matthew did invent a myth, that would be perfectly consistent with what we see in the real world. Remember too that Matthew was not at the tomb, so according to his own story, the guards were giving eyewitness testimony when they declared that disciples stole the body. Matthew accuses them of having been bribed to say that, but anyone can accuse anyone of anything, and Matthew provides no evidence for his accusation. Plus his story is unlikely, since it has the Pharisees knowing that Jesus is never going to show up in real life, otherwise their big problem would not be the tomb, it would be the resurrected Jesus. The story of the guards, and especially the story of the bribe, are clearly fabrications designed to discredit reports that the body was stolen. The most we can reliably conclude from Matthew’s story is that there were reports of Jesus body being stolen that were even older than the Gospels.

      The story of Lazarus is another one that shows signs of having been invented much later, and you can read more about that here.

      As for Jesus’ other alleged “miracles,” they are certainly a pleasant story, but sadly they are stories that do not correspond to anything that happens in the real world. You can see that by noticing how much effort Christians expend on explaining why God cannot or should not do the same sorts of things today, each of which turns out to be a pretty good reason why God couldn’t have done them in New Testament times either. That means that whatever people do in God’s name, they do by their own abilities and determination, which is actually very good news, because it means that men and women have a degree of power and goodness that past generations have thought was divine. Plus it also explains why Christians do so much evil without God doing anything to stop them. God is a character in a story people tell themselves, and He “tells” them to be as good or as wicked as they want to be. Realizing this can be very liberating, as I can tell you from personal experience.

      You say you are “doing research for a jail class,” which suggests that you might currently be a prisoner somewhere. If that’s the case, I wish you well in your research, and I hope that through knowledge you can come to be truly free in your mind. I spent decades of my life imprisoned in the mental “jail” of Christian superstition, and I can’t tell you how much better my life has been since I escaped from that tangle of myths and rationalizations. The truth will set you free from Christianity, and that’s a good thing.

  5. Bill Johnson says

    If historically we are quite certain that Jesus was dead, was placed in the tomb, and that several days later the tomb was assuredly empty, we begin searching for explanations other than a resurrection. Matthew itself presents the explanation that the guards fell asleep and the disciples snuck in and stole Jesus’ body. (Note that this explanation assumes the tomb is empty and that Jesus’ body is missing).
    Such an explanation is much more plausible if there are only two guards present at the tomb instead of, say, 16, 20, 40, 60, or more. If that many were on duty it becomes hard to fathom how the kidnapping of Jesus’ body could be done without being noticed.
    Now, the text definitely makes it clear that there were more than two guards. This is clear enough from a reading of Matthew 28 which says that ‘some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests [what] had happened.’ Clearly, ‘some’ of the guards means that others remained while others- not “one of the guards’” but “some of the guards” went into the city. For this to work it seems to me you’d need at least four guards.

    If these are in fact Roman guards, then four is in fact the minimum that protocol would dictate (see for example John 19:23), with each man taking three hours out of the night. Earlier in the account of Jesus’ punishment, we already got a glimpse of this basic ‘squad’ unit, when we read in John that the soldiers divided his garments “into four parts, one part for each soldier” (John 19:23).
    So, not two. At the extremely conservative, bare minimum, we must say at least four.
    If we begin to look at the matter from the basis of the evidence rather than from art work and conventional presentation I think it becomes clear that there were likely much more than four. Begin, for example, with Matthew 27:64 where the Pharisees approach Pilate for guards because: “Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”
    Pilate responds with “Take a Guard.” Although there is ambiguity here in the Greek, I believe the context affirms that reading, meaning Roman soldiers were dispatched. Please keep in mind that by ‘a guard’ it would be like saying a ‘squad,’ where the singular implies a plurality. Eg, if he had said “Take a Legion” we wouldn’t foolishly believe Pilate appointed just one man.
    Pilate then tells them to make the tomb as ‘secure as they know how.’ How many guards might we imagine they would decide to send if they were afraid of Jesus’ disciples stealing the body? Well, at the minimum, you know there are 11 disciples out there, so I imagine if you are trying to thwart them that you would have at least as many soldiers as you had people you feared were coming. If you had half a brain (and I believe the Romans did in such affairs) you would send twice or thrice the amount. If you said twenty Roman guards here I think that would be a conservative but safe estimate.
    I highly doubt too that the Pharisees wouldn’t have some of their own temple guards on site, as well. (Who better to suggest to the Roman guards to go explain the matter to the chief priests rather than go back to Pilate and be put to death for letting a dead prisoner escape? See Acts 12:19). If I were them, I’d trust Pilate as much as I trusted the disciples. I’d want some of my own men around.
    One of the other often forgotten dimensions is that this all occurred during the Passover, when Jerusalem becomes flooded with pilgrims. There are so many that they certainly cannot all fit inside the city walls. The hills are likely packed with people camping out (and since they are all dressed the same in accordance with purification rites, you see the need for Judas to lead the way and then kiss Jesus). Just a few days earlier all of Jerusalem was singing ‘Hosannah!’ as Jesus entered the city. In other words, the Romans and chief priests both knew that Jesus didn’t have only 11 disciples, but 11,000. Or more. How many guards would you send?
    Now we see coming into focus why when the facts roll in it becomes really difficult to believe the story that was circulated that Jesus’ body was stolen. There were probably dozens of guards about. Even if sleeping the guards would have heard something. Rolling a heavy stone away (remember the women wondered how it was going to be done) would have required lots of grunting and probably the use of some tools. This is not a quiet endeavor. Then the disciples would have to slip away- with everyone of the guards remaining fast asleep- and not be spotted by any of the thousands of people camped out in the hillside. Imagine going to a July 4th festival and smuggling a dead body out without being spotted by anyone.
    So it becomes more important than we may have realized to understand the real situation of the moment. It was the Passover. There were hundreds of thousands of pilgrims in town. Many of these were fans of Jesus. The Romans knew this. The Chief Priests knew this. They would have posted guards proportional to the perceived threat.
    How many? I am not going to get bogged down into trying to give a firm number. The Greek word here ‘custodian’ seems to have a variety of uses and may or may not refer to a specific Roman military unit. In Acts 12:4 Herod dispatches “four squads of four soldiers each” to guard one man, Peter. If it was perceived that sixteen men were needed to watch just one of the disciples one can only guess how many they thought were necessary to guard against a minimum of eleven. If pressed, I personally suspect that thirty to fifty guards were present but even if there were only sixteen (per the Acts 12:4 model) it is virtually impossible to believe, seriously, that they all fell asleep andremained so as a bunch of disciples were slinking about, clawing at a honking big tombstone, and then extracting the body. We are talking about Roman soldiers here, after all.

    The only conclusion that can be drawn if you have an open mind is that Resurrection is real!

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Hi Bill,

      You make an interesting point regarding the fact that Matthew states that “some” of the guards reported to the Pharisees. I agree that this makes his account require at least four guards, and probably more. If we have a truly open mind, however, this leads us to the conclusion that Matthew is most likely inventing the whole story, for several reasons.

      If you only have one soldier on guard, it’s unlikely that the guard will fall asleep because soldiers are trained not to do that. But people have weaknesses, so it’s not too terribly implausible, if there’s only one soldier. With two soldiers, though, the likelihood goes down significantly. One of them might start to nod off, but the other one will catch him, and wake him up. It’s still possible that the soldiers might both fall asleep at the same time, but it’s significantly less likely. The odds drop again if you have three soldiers, and by the time you have as few as four, they begin to become implausibly low. And that’s with only four soldiers, which is not really enough to divide into groupings of “some” and “the rest”—you’d say “one” or “two” or “three” of them went to see the Pharisees, not “some” or “most.” I’d think somewhere between six and eight would be the minimum number of guards. A couple dozen might be more what Matthew had in mind.

      This makes it extremely unlikely that the Pharisees, in real life, would try to stifle the story by bribing the guards. First of all, their story is too silly to have originated with anyone who genuinely wanted to cover things up. A whole squad or more of guards all fell asleep at the same time, and witnessed the theft while they were asleep? That’s not the kind of story you get from skilled political maneuverers like the leaders of the Pharisees. Secondly, they didn’t have all the guards there to bribe. To hush up a story, you have to control all the witnesses, not just some of them. Moreover, the bribes are obviously a bad investment, since the priests would be paying to spread a story crafted to maximize suspicion that something big was being covered up. Not only is each guard going to require a great deal of hush money, but they’re going to need to pay that same amount to every guard. Pretty expensive investment just to disseminate a story that’s only going to shout “Cover-Up!” to everyone who hears it. And even then you still have the other eyewitnesses to spill the beans.

      In fact, Matthew’s whole point here is clearly exactly that: to start a rumor that the Pharisees were covering up an actual resurrection. But he tries too hard and too clumsily. His story is full of holes, not the least of which is that he fails to put the guards on the tomb until Saturday morning, which means it would have been unguarded all night Friday night. A disciple would merely need to overcome his or her religious taboo against “violating” the Sabbath—and the principle reason Jesus was executed (according to the New Testament) was for teaching his disciples that it was ok to violate the Sabbath! All it would take for disciples to steal the body, even with Matthew’s alleged guards, would be for one or more disciples to make a religiously-questionable decision during a time of extreme emotional stress. Given the fact that Jesus was allegedly crucified when Jerusalem was full of pilgrims for Passover, this is an extremely likely possibility, and certainly far more plausible than Matthew’s crude attempts to convince us that an entire squad or more of Roman soldiers witnessed an alleged resurrection while they were unconscious.

      The one thing we can know for certain from Matthew’s account is that there were widespread reports in Palestine to the effect that disciples had stolen the body. Not that the apostles stole the body, not that all the disciples were in on the theft, but only that some unknown disciples took the body, possibly without the knowledge or approval of any other disciples. One of the arguments that apologists use against the idea of disciples stealing the body is that they could never have gotten away with it—someone would talk and admit taking the body, or some third party would see them stealing it, and boom, the story is out, and everybody knows that some disciples took the body. Only trouble is, if that’s what did happen, you’d get exactly what Matthew is reporting: widespread public knowledge, in Palestine, that disciples took the body. And since Matthew went to all the trouble to try and discredit these reports, we know that, in fact, that’s what was being reported in that part of the world at that time. So it all fits. The most plausible, fact-based, consistent explanation is that some unknown disciples took the body without the knowledge or consent of the other disciples, leaving behind an empty tomb which the apostles decided was evidence of a bodily resurrection, with later embellishments added by people like Matthew inventing stories to try and make it all sound legit.

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