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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.



  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!

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