I’ve been enjoying a stimulating conversation with Jayman on the topic of resurrection, and one of the things I’ve realized as a result is that the story of the guards in Matt. 28 is unmistakably a fraudulent addition invented long after the time of the alleged Resurrection. See if you can spot the clues that give it away:
Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave. And behold, a severe earthquake had occurred, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the stone and sat upon it… The guards shook for fear of him and became like dead men…
[S]ome of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened. 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.’ And if this should come to the governor’s ears, we will win him over and keep you out of trouble.” And they took the money and did as they had been instructed; and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day.
This is a very popular story, and most Christians treat it as undeniable fact. It sounds perfectly plausible to modern ears, because we’ve all become accustomed to the fact that there’s no resurrected Jesus walking around in the flesh. In that context, Matthew’s story about the guards sounds reasonably plausible. It might be a bit suspicious, in that he raises serious accusations of bribery without any evidence to support his accusations, but we wouldn’t find it too out of place in a world where the empty tomb was the only part of the story you could point to in the real world.
The problem is, that’s an anachronistic perspective. Matthew’s story is a story that clearly belongs to the later period, when it’s taken for granted that there’s no resurrected Savior hanging around. But that’s not where people would have been immediately after the alleged resurrection, assuming it took place the way modern Christians claim it did.
Let’s imagine that we’re priests in the Sanhedrin, the top of the religio-political food chain in a relatively civilized yet brutal culture where people who make stupid mistakes not only fail to rise to the top, they sometimes fail to even survive (as Jesus himself found out).
Now, let’s suppose that we’ve just murdered a righteous man out of jealousy, and let’s suppose we put guards around the tomb, and let’s suppose the guards come back and tell us, “Hey, you know that dude you just killed? He’s really the Son of God and God just raised him from the dead. He’s out there somewhere right now, walking around Jerusalem in the flesh.”
The last time we saw him, he promised us that we would see him sitting at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven—Judgment Day language, right out of Daniel. Oops. Oh wait, no, that wasn’t the last time we saw him. We also taunted him while he was dying on the cross. Double oops.
Does anyone seriously believe that our only concern at this point is that somebody might see an empty hole and not have a natural explanation for it?
You might be thinking that the resurrected Jesus did not immediately bring about Judgment Day, nor did he appear to the general non-believing public, at least according to the Gospel stories. You know that and I know that, but the priests, on the day after Passover, before any of these stories had been written (or had even happened) would have no way of knowing that. Just imagine what a murdered Messiah might do during the days following his resurrection, especially if he was the Son of the Old Testament God!
Nor can they just lie low for 40 days and wait for Jesus to go to heaven. Acts 1 hasn’t been written yet! As far as they know, today is the first day of Eternity in the Kingdom of God. They have no reason whatsoever to expect that they can just spread a few fibs about the tomb and thereby successfully stifle the whole resurrection.
And yet here’s Matthew, imagining a bunch of guilty conspirators standing around knowing that a genuine Resurrection has just happened, without the least suspicion that Jesus himself might prove to be any kind of problem. Maybe that’s a story that will sound less bizarre a few decades in the future, after people get used to there being no resurrected Messiah around, but right at this moment, immediately after Jesus supposedly came out of the tomb in the flesh, it’s simply ludicrous.
Imagine Elvis Presley deciding to come out of his tomb as a resurrected pop star, and put on a concert at Graceland. Suppose Pat Robertson decided he didn’t like that idea because it seemed like a mockery of Jesus’ resurrection. Does anyone seriously suppose that a resurrected Elvis could be explained away just by lying and saying his fans had stolen the body from the tomb? “So you mean they stole the body first and then it came back to life?” Duh! The tomb is not the problem. The problem is the formerly dead pop star getting out and about in the flesh.
Notice, too, how the priests’ alleged choice of lies is nonsense. People don’t see an empty tomb and think, “Ah, this must have belonged to someone who came back from the dead.” What does the Bible itself say is the universal and immediate reaction of everybody who finds only the empty tomb and nothing else? “Oh no, someone took the body and we don’t know where they took it!” There’s just no way a bunch of guys savvy enough to work their way to the top of the Sanhedrin would be dumb enough to pay large chunks of cash to have people spread rumors that (a) people would naturally assume anyway and (b) would do nothing to discredit the actual resurrected Messiah himself.
What would Pat Robertson do if he wanted to discredit a resurrected Elvis? Would he claim that the “risen” Elvis was an imposter? Would he claim that the Elvis that died was the imposter? Ok, Pat’s a wacko, so he’d probably claim that the Devil raised Elvis up to be the Antichrist, but still, even crazy old Pat wouldn’t seriously think he could refute a resurrected Elvis just by accusing his fans of tomb-raiding. Matthew’s story is just nonsense.
What we learn from Matthew’s lie is twofold: first, as Matthew himself declares, there were widespread reports in Palestine to the effect that disciples had taken Jesus body. Obviously, if Matthew went to all the trouble to try and discredit these reports, it must be historical fact that they existed. He certainly would not have invented evidence against the Gospel if it wasn’t already there. Given the fact that Christians felt threatened enough by these stories to invent silly lies to try and discredit them, it’s highly likely that these reports are true.
But more than this, the failure of Matthew’s imagination shows us how deeply ingrained Jesus’ absence was in the hearts and minds of early believers. Matthew can’t even imagine what sort of impact a genuinely resurrected Messiah would have on the real world. In Matthew’s world, the empty tomb is the only part of the story significant enough to pose a plausible threat to unbelieving Jews, and therefore he imagines a world in which the very murderers of Jesus can find nothing more significant to worry about than a barren hole.
Matthew’s dilemma is that the empty tomb is exactly that: the only part of the resurrection story real enough to be significant. There is no genuinely risen Savior to pose any kind of threat, justified or otherwise, to those who murdered him. Why else would the priests in his story care only about the tomb, and not show the slightest qualms about the Risen Lord? Why else would Matthew care so much about a mere tomb that he would tell an obvious lie to try and protect its place in the resurrection myth?
The answer is obvious. In the absence of a genuinely resurrected Jesus, the empty hole is all he’s got.