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!

  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.


    In the end it doesn’t matter if any one can convince you if Jesus really was raised
    from the dead. It’s not a Christians job to convince people, just to tell the story. God
    is the one who converts people into true believers. No matter how convincing your
    argument is against the resurrection, if it really is true, you’ll have an eternity in hell
    thinking about it, in torment. Enjoy!

    • Deacon Duncan says

      The thing you need to remember is that Christianity is exactly what you called it: a story told by Christians. If men tell me a story that is full of inconsistencies, contradictions, and significant deviations from reality, then any God who valued truth would want me to reject it as obviously untrue. If you want me to believe something, you must first show me that it is consistent with reality, and of course with itself as well.

      A real, good, and honest God would know that, and would Himself insist on nothing less.

      • Ben says

        Regarding your comment about the inconsistencies speaking to a lacking of divine guidance and therefore fallibility and overall falsity. The minor inconsistencies are actually a feature of the Gospels vouching for their authenticity thought it is, at first glance, counterintuitive. As John Lennox explains: owing to inevitable variations of viewpoint and the fallibility of human recall, it is psychologically impossible for multiple eyewitness accounts to be in perfect agreement down to the last detail. It is for this reason that, faced with multiple statements that do agree in every detail, “a judge would be likely to deduce that there had been a collusion to mislead the court.” Nor, obviously, can there be any truth in testimonies which are in hopeless disagreement on all points.
        What is looked for in independent testimonies is agreement on all the main facts, with just that amount of difference which can be accounted for by different perspectives, etc.
        And since the Gospels do agree on all the main facts of the resurrection, rejecting them on the basis of minor inconsistencies of detail is a complete reversal of the proper analytical procedure: It is these minor inconsistencies that lend the accounts an aura of credibility as eyewitness testimony, and without which, a premeditated conspiracy by the authors of the texts comprising the New Testament would be implicated.

      • Deacon Duncan says

        Hi Ben, thanks for writing, but I must point out that Matthew is telling a story about an event at which he was not present, and for which he is the sole New Testament source. Under the circumstances, you can’t really explain away the discrepancies and inconsistencies in his story by appealing to the ordinary differences in how different eyewitnesses perceive and recall the same event, since we don’t have this story from any other witness.

        I think you are on the right track, at least, when you point out the fallibility of human recall and the psychological impossibility of getting a 100% consistent set of stories from a diverse group of witnesses. I’m not sure, though, why you think that somehow negates my point about the fallibility of the stories. It seems to me like John Lennox is trying to put the best possible face on the undeniable fact that the stories are not infallibly accurate, and thus not infallibly true. And that, in turn, means we are entirely justified at considering the stories of the New Testament with a skeptical eye, knowing that what the Bible says is not necessarily what actually happened.

        After all, if the Bible were infallibly true, and everything every witness reported agreed 100% with every other Biblical testimony, then Lennox’s argument would be entirely different. He’d be saying, “Yes, it’s natural to suspect collusion when the witnesses all agree 100%, however in this case the perfection of the testimony is because they are all inspired by the same God.” That’s an argument that an apologist would love to be able to make, but they can’t honestly make that claim, so instead they’re left with trying to think up ways to make the inaccuracies sound like a good thing. And that means that, like Lennox himself argues, the Bible is as humanly fallible as any other testimony we get from men.

    • Nick Gotts says

      So , what you’re saying is that God, who being omnipotent can do anything logically possible, converts some people but not others; and then tortures those others for eternity. Tell me, do you worship this vile monster out of fear – which would be understandable though certainly not admirable – or because you get a sadistic thrill out of imagining the agonies of those sent to hell?

  7. LOU says

    First off one of the comments asked for “proof” that Jesus ever even lived. May I suggest that you read the writing of the JEWISH historian Josephus. As I stated he was a Jew and Roman citizen, so he has no reason to lie. He mad reference to Jesus living,preaching, miracles, and being executed. AND PLEASE FOLKS TRY TO REMEMBER WHAT LORD JESUS SAID TO THOMAS, …”BLESSED ARE YOU FOR BELIEVING UPON SEEING, BUT MORE BLESSED ARE THEY THATY BELIEVE WITHOUT SEEING” Also remember that Matthew and John were EYEWITNESSES while Mark and Luke were simply repeating what they had heard. But in the end the simple truth is “FOR THE TRUE BELIEVER NO PROOF IS NEEDED, FOR THOSE WHO WILL NOT BELIEVE, NO PROOF WILL EVER DO.”

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Hello LOU, thanks for writing. There are at least two problems with deciding to have faith without evidence. It’s true that there is no greater faith than to be willing to believe without evidence, and to cling to that belief no matter what. The problem is that this is also a description of the greatest possible gullibility. It’s a bad sign when a religion encourages people to have the kind of faith that is indistinguishable from mere gullibility, because that suggests that the religion is a lie and does not come from any real god at all.

      The second problem is that evidence just means showing that something is consistent with reality. In fact, that’s kind of the definition of the difference between “true” and “false.” True things are the things that are consistent with reality; false things are the things that contradict reality (and possibly contradict themselves). To proudly ignore the evidence is to proudly remain ignorant of whether or not something is really true. Again, when a religion teaches its followers to treat evidence with disdain, and to ignore the difference between truth and falsehood, that’s a bad sign. It strongly suggests that the religion cannot pass a basic reality check.

      No true knowledge ever needs to fear being measured against the standard of reality, because it is the nature of truth to be consistent with itself. Gullible faith is no virtue, since, in the best case, it adds nothing to the truth, and in the worst case it leads people to believe lies. The best basis for belief is to accept only that which is consistent with reality (and everything that is consistent with reality), and to know nothing else. And that’s what skepticism is for. Skepticism is the highest standard of respect for the truth.

  8. Mitch says

    I know that God / Jesus exist because of the personal relationship that I’ve been blessed to discover and grow over the years. Duncan, you said that you spent decades in the jail of Christian superstition. During that time did you simply go through the motions or did you ever make an earnest attempt to seek Jesus in a personal way? If you had done so, you would be intelligently defending Christ instead of denying Him. One day, every knee shall bow and tongue confess – even you. God bless.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Hello Mitch, thanks for writing. I can appreciate the sincerity of your belief, and I have no doubt that your Jesus does “exist” for you personally, in your subjective experience. The thing is, he’s only your personal Jesus—he only exists for you and in you, and nobody else has quite the same Jesus you do. That’s why you had to ask me about my personal experience with my personal Jesus. My personal Jesus and your personal Jesus are two different Jesuses. Your personal Jesus has no knowledge of my personal Jesus or the relationship I used to have with him (which was very close, by the way, and thank you for asking). You have the best, most perfect Jesus you can imagine, just like every other believer, but that’s because your imagination is what lends him the only existence he is capable of having. And the same is true of my personal Jesus, as you yourself know without really being aware of it. Isn’t that why you assumed that my unbelief came from a lack of effort on my part? Otherwise, if Jesus existed apart from my effort to imagine him, then he could and should have revealed himself to me back when I was a believer, as the Gospel claims he is willing and able to do. But the Gospel is wrong, because Jesus today is only a fictional character in the minds and hearts of those willing to make themselves believe.

  9. says

    Comment submitted:
    I believe that Jesus died for my sins and for the whole world. I believe as most Christians do that the word is God inspired and so Matthew does not have to reveal his source as it is implied. You guys are missing the real point of the story. It was his resurrection not the guard’s motivation. 500 people saw him alive after he died. If they were all or any of them lying how come no one recanted? Dozens watched him die and hundreds watched him live. If you believe as I do that this is extraordinary then how big a jump is it for God to put the guards to sleep? To answer the disciples taking the body, simply, the disciples were running scared, the rock, Peter, had just denied him three times. The only one left was John and all he could do is watch. By himself he couldn’t have rolled the stone away. But, that being said, if this bothers you, talk to an expert in the bible or a pastor. in addition read the book “the case for Christ.” An atheist looks into the story of Christ and finds some truth. Finally, don’t worry about being “guillible” in your faith. The Bible has been proven to be truthful time and time again by archaeology. Understand that even very bright people that write and read here may not be interpreting things correctly. Just like you would go to a lawyer for something involving an interpretation of the law, go to a preacher who has studied in seminary for years and studies the Bible daily. Jesus said that you will be persecuted and thought foolish for worshiping his name. I know I would be a fool for Christ than a ‘wise’ man of the world.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Hi Brett, thanks for writing. I haven’t missed the point of the story at all: Matthew’s point is that he wants us to believe that Jesus really rose from the dead. My point, on the other hand, is that we need to be concerned about whether or not Matthew is simply inventing a fictitious story. The significance of Matthew’s point changes quite a lot if it turns out he was merely passing on an urban legend. You can believe Matthew’s story all you want, but if it is not true, and if there are clear signs within the story itself that it is not, then belief is not a good thing. It is mere gullibility, and perhaps even contempt for the actual truth.

      Gullibility means believing what you are told, simply because you are told to believe it, even when you ought to know better. When there is clear evidence that men are telling you things that are not true, and you choose to believe it anyway, that’s gullibility. When someone points out flaws and inconsistencies in the stories men tell, and you choose to believe them anyway, and even go so far as to think up your own excuses for believing them, that’s gullibility. And the sad thing is, it’s also faith. People are proud to manifest their faith through their uncompromising loyalty to the stories they have been told, and their refusal to even consider any evidence that their stories might not be true. Which is indeed faith, but is also the definition of what it means to be gullible.

      I appreciate your trust in the men you believe, the pastors and seminarians and apologetics experts. They’re very good at telling their story. They’ve studied it for years, and worked on it, and polished it, and made it the best, most convincing story they can come up with. They’re very good at doing whatever it takes to persuade people that they ought to believe it. But in the end, all they really have is a story. And despite their best efforts, it’s a story with some rather obvious flaws and inconsistencies and self-contradictions.

      If you would truly love the truth, I would urge you to learn to tell the difference between the stories men tell, and the things that exist and are true in and of themselves, outside of the stories of men. Even if—or rather, especially if—men claim those stories come directly from God. For example, when you hear that 500 people saw Jesus alive, ask yourself what you really have. Do you actually have 500 eyewitnesses? Or do you just have a story about 500 eyewitnesses? And did they literally “see” a Jesus who was literally “alive,” or was it the same kind of “spiritual vision” that allowed the Mormon Apostles to “see” the Golden Book of Mormon? It’s easy to hear the stories and be carried away by the enthusiasm of the men telling the story, but what do you really have? It’s a lot less than you think.

  10. Ben says

    In my opinion the guard at the tomb is a trivial matter because it seeks to dispose of a theory that, in any case, does not stand up to rational scrutiny.

    To deny the resurrection with a stolen body hypothesis is to suppose that a small group of bedraggled defeated disciples could emerge from first century Judea and storm the Roman empire, and the world, establishing the most popular religion on earth for two millennia and counting—and all on the strength of the second-hand parables of a dead Jewish mystic and a falsifiable lie; a lie, moreover, for which they were persecuted, tortured and put to death without renouncing.

    I find the counter arguments here perfectly cogent: The above hypothesis runs into the catastrophic incoherence of imputing to the disciples what is psychologically and morally impossible.

    The explanation offered by the church you already know: That analysis of the scriptural and historical details eliminates all logical alternatives and overwhelmingly supports the view that Jesus Christ died on an afternoon in early April in 30 or 33 A.D. and three days later appeared before, spoke to, and ate with numerous witnesses.

    Here you, the nonbeliever, loudly object that the Gospel forms the main part of the evidential basis for its own claim. And on the face of it this would appear to be a formidable objection. There are two things to be said in reply to it.

    The first is that the New Testament was not produced to formula by an enclave of early church fathers working in close collaboration. It is a collection of ancient testimonials and letters by various authors that were scattered throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and Roman Empire and were only later brought together and bound into a single canonical volume. Asking for “authentic non-Biblical” sources from the ancient world to attest to the truth of the resurrection is therefore rather like asking for authentic non-canonical sources to attest to the accuracy of our historical picture of Aristotle or Caligula: All of the authentic sources are, by definition, already in the canon.

    The second is that, in any case, the problem is one which Christian apologists are able to meet with surprising assurance and lucidity. And they do this by drawing our attention to the unique self-authenticating features of their source material.

    The first such feature is both the most subtle and, in my view, the most compelling and interesting: The psychological verisimilitude of the narrative style. In a wonderful essay called Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism, the British novelist C. S. Lewis calls our attention to the Gospel of John: to its conspicuous lack of hyperbole so typical of ancient myth; to its striking economy of means; to its inclusion of extraneous but astutely observed details—Christ scratching words in the dust and quickly erasing them before they could be read; a languid conversation with a woman at a well—and also to the striking understatements of the man born blind who, returning home with his sight restored by Christ, is asked by his amazed neighbours to explain why he is no longer blind,


    He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”
    “Where is this man?” they asked him.
    “I don’t know,” he said.
    —John 9:11-12


    Under what inner compulsion did the author of this scene refrain from putting orotund religious proclamations into the mouth of his character, if not a frightened fidelity to the truth of what he had witnessed? Lewis writes,

    “I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this. Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage—though it may no doubt contain errors—pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else some unknown writer in the second century without known predecessors or successors suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic realistic narrative.”

    The account in John of the discovery of the empty tomb by two myrrh bearing women is also instructive. It is sparing, almost stark, in its development and firmly planted in the gritty realities of first century Judea with scarcely a hint of mythological embellishment. The Gospel of Peter, by contrast, an apocrypha rejected by the church, marshals a whole town to the tomb to witness the resurrection and when Christ emerges he does so in the company of two angels so tall their heads are lost in the clouds and also (I am not making this up) a talking crucifix.

    The second self-authenticating feature is our justification in applying, to several key details in the Synoptic Gospels, the so-called criterion of embarrassment. This is a principle of historical analysis which states that any detail problematic to an ancient account can be presumed true on the logic that the author would not have invented a detail problematic to his account. The crucifixion itself satisfies the criterion. The disciples, as Jews, believed that Christ was the Jewish messiah prophesied to overthrow a foreign occupying power and restore the throne of David in Jerusalem. His ignominious execution by the very foreign power they expected him to overthrow was therefore a twofold embarrassment: It contradicted their expectations for his ministry and appeared to confirm the Sanhedrin claim that Jesus was a false prophet accused by God. A second application: After Christ died, one Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body and, after his request was granted, wrapped it in linen cloth and laid it in the tomb. Joseph himself was a member of the Sanhedrin—the Jewish court whose machinations against Christ had led directly to his crucifixion. A third: It is well known that Judas betrayed Christ, Peter denied him, and the disciples as a group all scattered in fear from the scene of the crucifixion leaving only the women as witnesses; and women again were the first to see the empty tomb and the resurrected Christ. In first century Jewish culture, women were held in such contempt that their testimony was not even admitted in a court of law. According to the criterion of embarrassment, it is impossible that all these details were fabricated.

    A third feature of the Gospels vouching for their authenticity as eyewitness testimony is the one we have already discussed: The superficial inconsistency of detail. I think this suffices to justify a dismissal of factual infallibility. To my way of thinking, testimonial cogency is superior to factual identicality insofar as the former compels belief and the latter invites us to suspect a conspiracy. I therefore see no reason why we should equate divine involvement with infallibility. And I certainly cannot see the logic in your objection that noting the discrepancies between the different narratives is tantamount to demonstrating their overall falsity. It only disproves the falsity of inerrancy. It doesn’t disprove the hypothesis that 2015 years ago an incandescently mysterious event occurred which has been filtered through to us in the form of a collection of scattershot Greek texts which, over, as a result of their transaction with the divine, may yet be regarded as Holy.

    A fourth related feature of the Gospels is their proximity in time and space to the events they describe. Given the number of Jewish and Roman authorities hostile to Christianity, it is unlikely that the early disciples would have exposed themselves and their fledgling movement to discredit by making false statements that it would be easy for their opponents to refute. Of special note here is that they began their ministry in Jerusalem, the very city where Jesus had been crucified and buried, with the amazing claim that he had risen from the dead. Paul Althaus writes that the resurrection story, “could not have been maintained in Jerusalem for a single day, for a single hour, if the emptiness of the tomb had not been established as a fact for all concerned”–if false, the Roman and Sanhedrin authorities could have silenced them for all eternity by producing the corpse of Jesus Christ. And this is an essential point because, as will be seen in the next section, there are no rational naturalistic explanations for the vacancy of the tomb. The early Christian assertion that the resurrected Christ had at one time been seen by as many as five hundred witnesses belongs to this same category of self-authentication. To fabricate this detail, and then proclaim it authoritatively in the very place where, within living memory, it was alleged to have occurred, would not have washed with even the most credulous of Judaean audiences.

    A fifth feature, similar to the criterion of embarrassment, is the use of hostile witnesses. The earliest Jewish arguments against Christianity, for example, accuse the disciples of having stolen the body. This is important because it involves an incidental admission of a fact that was operating against the Sanhedrin attempts to suppress the spread of Christian belief: That the tomb was empty. Paul Maier argues that, “if a source admits a fact that is decidedly not in its favour, the fact is to be presumed genuine.”

    I do not claim that these features prove the resurrection. I merely note that they speak against the idea that it is impossible to supply cogent arguments for the historicity of the Gospels and the events they describe. Personally I see touches of mythological embellishment and apologetic finessing here and there. But more than this I am struck by an aura of numinous mystery of which the texts together provide an insurmountable, if somewhat inconclusive, indication.

    I really do think it would be a shame for you to dismiss that out of hand on the basis of exaggerated evidential standards. After all, in doing so, you are essentially committing yourself to a denial of history itself as a valid source of knowledge about the past since the documentary evidence for Christ’s resurrection is greater than that for any alleged miracle in all history.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Hi Ben,

      These arguments are quite familiar to me, having previously been a conservative, evangelical, born-again, Bible-believing Christian for most of my adult life. I’ll begin to address them shortly, however there’s one administrative detail I need to see to first.

      You have posted two comments so far, and both of them have been posts of standard Christian apologetics that have little or nothing to do with the material you are commenting on. In my experience, that’s a bad sign, especially given the length of your second comment and the speed with which you posted it. I do not typically ban people and I do not intend to ban you. I think I will, however, add your name to the moderation list, which means you are welcome to continue commenting, and your comments will appear when I get to them and verify that their contents meet my criteria for publication. (This may take a few days if it’s a busy week, which it often is.) You can see my published policies under The Moderation List and Comments Policy for details, but the gist of it is that this blog exists to provide my readers with interesting reading material, not to provide well-intentioned but misguided passers-by with a free audience to preach their superstitions to. You are welcome to comment, to disagree with me, to address my arguments, and to attempt to offer rebuttals, which I in turn will be happy to address in turn, as long as the discussion continues to provide interesting reading material to my readers. I can assure you that, after years of writing this blog (and similar blogs elsewhere), I and my readers would be very interested in having a religious discussion with a believer who honestly engages with the the evidence being presented and who demonstrates a consistent, coherent, and reasonable point of view. Frankly that’s not something we’ve had here before, but you are more than welcome to be the first, if you like.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Now, then, to your specific points.

      In my opinion the guard at the tomb is a trivial matter because it seeks to dispose of a theory that, in any case, does not stand up to rational scrutiny.

      On the contrary, Matthew’s story is exceedingly significant in this case, for at least two reasons. First of all, it confirms for us that accounts of Jesus’ body being stolen by disciples are old testimonies, older even than the Gospels (or at least older than Matthew’s gospel). All of your arguments for why we should accept the gospel accounts as “authentic” are thus arguments for why we should accept the authenticity of the story that disciples stole Jesus’ body.

      But secondly, and more importantly, Matthew’s story is significant because it is literally the canonical exemplar for all subsequent Christian attempts to discredit the original reports. Matthew puts together the worst possible framing for a stolen body scenario, and then claims—on the basis of no evidence whatsoever—that the story originated with some alleged guards being bribed to lie about it. The guards’ story is carefully crafted to be full of obvious holes, such as the fact that being asleep would have prevented the guards from identifying who the thieves were, plus the implausibility of imagining a group of men, surrounded by sleeping guards, being able to roll away the heavy stone, steal the body, and escape without any of the guards being awakened. And since this scenario is clearly unbelievable, Matthew would like us to think that there is no scenario by which the disciples could possibly have stolen Jesus’ body.

      This, however, is a mere straw man fallacy. By imagining one scenario that won’t work, Matthew has merely disproved one specific, contrived scenario, without telling us anything at all about the much wider range of other, more plausible scenarios. It’s a fallacy, and it’s also New Testament Scripture, which ought to tell us something right there. Like you suggested in your original comment, the testimonies in the New Testament are not infallible. We need to read them with an eye to the biases, beliefs, and possible agendas of the people writing them, just as we do with any other body of literature.

      To deny the resurrection with a stolen body hypothesis is to suppose that a small group of bedraggled defeated disciples could emerge from first century Judea and storm the Roman empire, and the world, establishing the most popular religion on earth for two millennia and counting—and all on the strength of the second-hand parables of a dead Jewish mystic and a falsifiable lie; a lie, moreover, for which they were persecuted, tortured and put to death without renouncing.

      But again, this is a refutation for one specific scenario that was carefully contrived to sound as implausible as possible. There are others. For example, there were many more disciples than just the 12 apostles. What if some other group of disciples stole the body without the knowledge or consent of the apostles? The apostles, then, would have been genuinely surprised, confused, and anguished at finding the tomb empty. Could this sort of shock be enough to provoke belief in a supernatural resurrection? Absolutely; in fact John’s gospel reports specifically that when he saw the empty tomb, he immediately concluded that Jesus had risen from the dead. (And notice, that’s a resurrection story being born without any supernatural manifestations, such as, say, an actual resurrection!)

      How would the apostles react upon hearing that “Sorry, unknown disciples simply moved the body somewhere else”? Well, they might lose faith and go back to what they were doing before. OR they might react the same way so many other believers have been known to react to disappointment: by finding some way to spiritually transform defeat into victory. In this case, they could easily decide that, body or no body, Jesus rose from the dead spiritually, in a spiritual body, as Paul argues in I Cor. 15. If you want to believe badly enough, you could call that a resurrection, too (even if subsequent believers were too materialistic to accept a spiritual resurrection, and had to re-work the resurrection story back into being a physical resurrection again before they wrote down the Gospels).

      Now ask yourself: have you ever heard of believers going to extremes to defend and cling to their beliefs? Have you ever heard believers treat subjective, “spiritual” experiences as though they were actual, literal events? Believers do this sort of thing all the time. “God spoke to me,” even though no audible sound was heard. “God is here among us,” even though there’s no tangible, literal divine presence. And have you ever heard of an urban legend or a viral meme spreading to millions of people even though only a handful originally shared it? Have you ever heard of people being quick to embrace rumors and anecdotes that strongly reinforce their cherished beliefs and values, regardless of the accuracy of the story? Many people base their beliefs on what they think should be true, far more than on skeptical/scientific standards of historical accuracy.

      For disciples to steal the body of Jesus, and for this to trigger a major outbreak of religious belief based on “spiritual” (subjective) experiences and fervent faith, all we would need is for people in the first century to be much like people today. That’s not at all unlikely, and it’s certainly much more plausible and coherent than supposing that an incarnate God, having finally won victory over sin and death, and having finally redeemed his own beloved people, would immediately abandon them to thousands of years of confusion, heresy, war, sin, and (in most cases) eternal damnation. And that’s just one possible scenario in which disciples could have stolen the body of Jesus, though I personally think it’s the most plausible, and is very likely what actually did happen.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      The explanation offered by the church you already know: That analysis of the scriptural and historical details eliminates all logical alternatives and overwhelmingly supports the view that Jesus Christ died on an afternoon in early April in 30 or 33 A.D. and three days later appeared before, spoke to, and ate with numerous witnesses.

      That is what the church claims, but then what else would you expect the church to claim? I have looked at that analysis, as a faithful, Bible-believing Christian, and though I took it on faith at first, and for many years refrained from examining it too critically, the longer I studied it, and the more I learned, the more I found the church’s claims to be lacking in integrity and accuracy.

      Here you, the nonbeliever, loudly object that the Gospel forms the main part of the evidential basis for its own claim.

      I think it would be more accurate to identify me as an ex-believer rather than a nonbeliever. I did spend literally decades devoting my life to the service of Christ as best I understood it at the time.

      And on the face of it this would appear to be a formidable objection. There are two things to be said in reply to it.

      The first is that the New Testament was not produced to formula by an enclave of early church fathers working in close collaboration. It is a collection of ancient testimonials and letters by various authors that were scattered throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and Roman Empire and were only later brought together and bound into a single canonical volume. Asking for “authentic non-Biblical” sources from the ancient world to attest to the truth of the resurrection is therefore rather like asking for authentic non-canonical sources to attest to the accuracy of our historical picture of Aristotle or Caligula: All of the authentic sources are, by definition, already in the canon.

      Much the same can be said of the Quran and the Book of Mormon, can it not? And how, exactly, does a source for Aristotle or Caligula become “canonical” as opposed to being “non-canonical”?

      What I think is probably the more relevant point is the fact that no non-believer ever witnessed a physically-resurrected Jesus walking around anywhere in Jerusalem after his crucifixion. The evidence we have is consistent with the explanation that key elements of the gospel story were a combination of ordinary urban legend and the common Christian propensity towards describing personal, subjective, “spiritual” experiences in the language of real, concrete events. Likewise, the evidence we have for Aristotle and Caligula is consistent with their existence as ordinary, remarkable, but entirely non-supernatural persons. So it is entirely reasonable and consistent to apply the same standards of evidence to the Gospel stories as we do to Aristotle and Caligula.

      The second is that, in any case, the problem is one which Christian apologists are able to meet with surprising assurance and lucidity. And they do this by drawing our attention to the unique self-authenticating features of their source material.

      And away from the features that identify it as superstition, credulity, and urban legend. 😉

      You bring up some interesting material, and I think that, rather than responding here in the comments where a lot of people might miss it, I’m going to promote this to a blog post. I’ll post a link here when I’m done. Thanks.

    • Nick Gotts says

      You express incredulity that:

      a small group of bedraggled defeated disciples could emerge from first century Judea and storm the Roman empire, and the world, establishing the most popular religion on earth for two millennia and counting—and all on the strength of the second-hand parables of a dead Jewish mystic and a falsifiable lie; a lie, moreover, for which they were persecuted, tortured and put to death without renouncing.

      Now as it happens I think the disciples genuinely believed Jesus had in some sense returned from the dead. But that is simply testimony to the extent to which people – individually and to a greater extent collectively – are capable of convincing themselves of practically anything. The rise of Christianity is certainly no more astounding in this regard than that of Islam – that a middle-aged merchant should be capable of turning himself into a political and military leader able to unite a bunch of warring clans who went on to create the largest empire the world had seen up to that time, on the basis of an internally inconsistent text supposedly dictated to him by an angel. Or of Mormonism – that a convicted conman, and habitual bigamist and sexual predator, should found a new religion on the basis of “golden plates” no-one else ever saw and a language and mythology cobbled together out of his fertile imagination – and that this religion should survive his ignominious death. Or of Scientology – that a hack science fiction writer should persuade thousands of people to hand over not only their money but their lives to him by spinning ludicrous yarns about alien tyrants exploding souls in volcanoes.

  11. Ben says

    Thank you for the thoughtful reply, Deacon Duncan. I’m sorry for violating the rules and will try to keep my posts shorter and more to the point in future.

    I was rather interested to read about your background. We are REALLY coming at this from opposite directions. I was raised in a secular household and have been to church about five times in my life—all either weddings or funerals! If I had to define my religious beliefs, it would be those of a, “hand-wavvy agnostic.”

    However, that changed recently. At the start of this year, I got quite interested in the arguments for and against theism after reading There Is A God: Why the World’s Most Notorious Atheism Changed His Mind by the British philosopher Atony Flew. I then read my way through Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris and A. C. Grayling who, of course, are atheists followed by Berlinski, Plantigna and Lennox on the theist side.

    I came away from all those books far less hand-wavy: I am now convinced that theism does indeed have far more rational warrant than you would be led to believe from reading the shrill overweening accounts of the New Atheists.

    To be clear: These men are not arguing for Christian belief; they are merely arguing for some sort of vast orchestrating intelligent or the idea (to quote Flew) that, “intelligence, rather than emerging as a late outgrowth of the evolution of life, has always existed as the matrix and substrate of physical reality.” Flew, by the way, denied the afterlife; Berlinski is a secular Jew! So how did I get here?

    Well, the only overtly Christian of the four was Lennox who included at the end of his book a short Christian apologia. Now, if you had told me two months ago that Christians could mount a rational defence of their beliefs I wouldn’t have believed you. I assumed that they depended entirely on the deliverances of faith and that those beliefs were as far from rational scrutiny as, say, the proposition that there were flying cows in ancient Hindustan.

    And here is what has surprised me: The arguments surprisingly cogent, especially given the extraordinary nature of the claim and the fact that no other historical event—as far as I know—has borne up against more prolonged and intense analysis. I do not mean that they “prove” what they claim! There is vast scope for doubt and skeptical critique. But that they are able to present a respectable case it all is what, under the circumstances, rather amazes me.

    Even Flew, who never himself converted and died a philosophical deist, was moved to remark, “The evidence for the resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion. It’s outstandingly different in quality and quantity.”

    So anyway, I thought I’d take the opportunity to put the case before a hard boiled skeptic and see what would be made of it. I apologise that my post was overlong. And I look forward to reading your reply!

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Thanks for sharing your story. I don’t know if you are aware, but the book There Is A God, credited to Anthony Flew, was actually ghost-written by a Christian apologist named Roy Abraham Varghese. After the book was published, a reporter read excerpts of it to Flew, and Flew didn’t recognize any of it. You can read more about this here.

      As for Berlinski, I’ll leave you to form your own opinions, but I’d recommend that you spend some time considering the question of why a self-professed atheist would want to write apologetics in defense of a Creator whose existence he did not believe in. If his own arguments aren’t enough to convince himself, then why should I believe them?

  12. Ben says

    I hope I am not breaking any more rules but I thought it was only fair to actually reply to your arguments!

    Of course it is possible some one stole the body if we allow that that some one was not one of eleven disciples who went on to perish for their beliefs. But you would have to be able to suggest a plausible candidate and motive.

    Neither the Romans nor the Sanhedrin are candidates. And it seems unlikely, at least to me, that a follower of Christ would do it because the motivating emotion would be inversely proportional to the resolve. By that I mean only a devout follower of Christ would think to do it and a devout follower of Christ would not be likely to disturb the slumber of their Lord out of a pious wish to restore his honour by turning his whole life into a lie. The idea is self-abnegating. Christ demanded moral rectitude of his followers—often on pain of eternal damnation. If they revered him enough to conceive of doing it they would revere him too much to be capable of doing it. Of course it is still a possibility—but a fairly remote one.

    You would almost be better off postulating a group of drunks or pranksters but then your main reason for doing so would then appear to be that of circumventing a possibility you are pre-committed to denying.

    Then you write that since the stolen body hypotheses are “old testimonies” all of “my arguments” for the authenticity of the Gospel accounts are arguments for those hypotheses! Excuse me but, unless I am having a stroke, that makes absolutely no sense at all. Another way of expressing this idea of yours is to say that a claim must be credible because it is denied by an eyewitness whose credibility has been demonstrated!

    The rest of your argument in this section hangs its hat on the idea that Matthew’s talk of guards is obviously false and therefore the entire New Testament can be brushed aside as so much gobbledegook. Since I do not think the fallibility of the Gospel’s bears conclusively on the overall case for the resurrection this doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me either. I’ve heard passable defences of the guard story. (That it doesn’t make sense within the polemical exchange between Jews and Christians which is its only possible context). But I still maintain that it is trivial on the rigorous logic that Matthew’s scrupulous adherence to the truth and the possibility of a resurrection are not mutually inclusive.

    For example, let’s imagine the following scenario: Christ rose from the dead. After he folded out of our space-time manifold, the disciples started to preach that he is the Lord. The Jews wished to quench the movement so they, of course, accused the disciples of lies and deception. To defend themselves (and since they can’t produce the resurrected Christ) the disciples point to the only piece of concrete evidence widely accepted: The empty tomb. The Jews reply that the disciples stole the body. The disciples, desperate to defend the truth, resort to untruth, and invent a story about guards.

    You infer that they did in fact steal the body but the above scenario is no less unfalsifiable and also explains the whole polemic about guards and grave robbers in a way that is consistent with the actuality of the resurrection.

    I also find your attempt to explain away the sightings and encounters with the resurrected Christ a bit thin. You are referring, of course, to the hallucination theory but I am inclined to agree with the counterarguments here too: The accounts are not reconcilable with hallucinations because hallucinations are not shared and nor are such wish-fulfilling psychological events likely to be experienced by parties fiercely antagonistic to the wish! I am referring, of course, to Saul of Tarus—if that’s how you spell it. And so once again you are required to fall back on the general idea that the entire Gospel is a vast and masterfully choreographed deception—which is a different debate altogether.

    I have read your arguments and recognised their logic—but I really do think that in the aggregate your narrative is at least as mysterious and fishy as the narrative is seeks to refute. My conclusion is that you are making a trade off between two kinds of impossibilities: The psychological and naturalistic. Your arguments seem impossible from the psychological point of view; the arguments from Christian apologists seem impossible from the naturalistic point of view.

    But are they?

    The physicist Bradley Monton, though himself an atheist, sportingly provided when asked a quantum mechanical account of the transformation of water into wine. He wrote,

    “The wave function for each particle is spread throughout an unbounded region of the universe at every time except perhaps momentary instants of time. This means that for each particle there is at most a finite region where it couldn’t be localised by a GRW hit. Some, probably even most, particles could be localised anywhere. So for changing water into wine, it’s not a big deal—you’ve got a bunch of individual particles that are composing the water, and they can all have GRW hits such that their positions are redistributed to the locations that would be appropriate for them to compose wine.”

    Here, for what it’s worth, GRW refers to the Ghirard-Rimini-Weber approach—one of a set of collapse theories in quantum mechanics. Monton’s final assessment is that, “all of the other miracles are unproblematically compatible with quantum mechanics.”

    Also, the American analytic philosopher Alvin Plantinga notes that the explanatory power of the multiverse theory (which is invoked to dismiss the theistic implications of cosmological fine tuning) depends on the idea that every logically possible universe exists at least once in the infinite ensemble of worlds. It must follow, he says, that there is a universe in which God exists, since his existence—however improbable in the assessment of the New Atheists—is still possible. And if that is so, and since God is omnipotent, He must exist in every universe and so there is really only one universe, ours, of which He is the creator and upholder.

    In this formulation the multiverse theory doesn’t simply fail to diminish the theistic implications of fine tuning—it guarantees theism.

    The same of course must be said for a universe in which the president of Argentina is a llama and one in which the Third Reich led by a sentient dining chair. And the resurrection? That is theoretically possible too and must have therefore occurred in at least one world—and a Christian quantum physicist is not so easily refuted when he asserts that ours must be the one in which it did occur.

    It has also been noted that empirical Western science flourished under Christian theism and nowhere else. Science, in turn, has revealed a rational order in the cosmos so improbable and astounding that it has moved many an eminent cosmologist to belief in God. But which God? Here we find an argument for Christianity that—hold on to your hat—doesn’t depend on the Gospel at all: The particular God worthy of our belief is the one implicated by the circumstances attending the discovery of the arguments for his existence.

    I feel that I have given a satisfactory account of my views and don’t intend to continue inundating your website with further posts—though I am interesting in reading your upcoming post and may make a curious reply. In any case, I thank you for a stimulating discussion!

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Hi again, Ben. I’ve started answering your comment above in a blog post (here), but I think people are starting to get tired of hearing me talk about this at the blog post level, so I’m going back to the comment stream again. I’ll pick up with this bit:

      Then you write that since the stolen body hypotheses are “old testimonies” all of “my arguments” for the authenticity of the Gospel accounts are arguments for those hypotheses! Excuse me but, unless I am having a stroke, that makes absolutely no sense at all. Another way of expressing this idea of yours is to say that a claim must be credible because it is denied by an eyewitness whose credibility has been demonstrated!

      I’m not sure why you find this so shocking: I’m only proposing that we apply the same standards of evidence across all the various alternatives. If disciples had stolen the body, they would be very unlikely to succeed in keeping it a secret. Someone would see them, or else someone would talk, and boom, word gets out that disciples stole the body. Thus, if disciples stole the body, we would expect to find two consequences as a result: (1) the body was no longer in the tomb, and (2) there exist reports in the area that disciples had taken the body.

      If we apply your 5 criteria to this possibility, we find first of all that the reports related by Matthew do not possess the character of “poems, romances, vision literature, legends, [or] myths,” and thus they clearly meet the first of your criteria for self-authentication. Secondly, these reports are relayed to us by Matthew, who would indeed be embarrassed to find that his “resurrected” savior was merely a misplaced corpse, so your second criterion is abundantly satisfied as well. Your third criterion, of mutual contradiction, we cannot assess because we do not have the original reports (and in any case this is a highly unreliable basis for concluding authenticity rather than the reverse). However, since Matthew testifies that these reports were coming from local inhabitants even earlier than the writing of the gospels, we can at least conclude that they satisfy your fourth criterion of temporal and geographical proximity. Your fifth and final criterion, of a hostile witness, is ably satisfied by Matthew, whose hostility towards these reports is demonstrated by his clearly fabricated attempt to discredit them, using a story that reflects the assumptions and knowledge of someone who knows Jesus is never going to appear to any unbelievers. That obviously would not be any of the Pharisees who had just heard credible testimony that Jesus had risen from the dead, so we can be sure that Matthew’s story is fictitious, even without considering its other notable flaws.

      Thus, by your own criteria, we have ample justification for finding these reports credible on their own merits. At the very least, you should agree that there is nothing surprising or objectionable in my suggestion that we take your criteria for authenticating the gospel, and apply them to other alternatives as well.

  13. says

    Hi Mr. Deacon

    I’m so glad to found your article. Your rebuttal to other posters are just amazingly well thought out and with grace.
    You never lost your cool unlike those so call Christians. One of your reply “My Jesus vs their Jesus” really touched me.

    Your intellect surpass any original men. I’m just so honor to have the chance to read all your comments.

    Ps. Can I have your permission to link your article on Youtube? particularly on the resurrection videos. Cheers


  14. says

    Oops I forgot to post my thoughts regard to the sleeping guards.

    I’m thinking about.. What if the guards were drugged ? by the ladies.
    I also read about the 12 disciples fate. One half died from execution and the other half die of old age. So I’m thinking, what if the other half that wasn’t eager to die were responsible for stealing Jesus body and fabricated a story that we know today?

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