Easter having passed, and thoughts of Resurrection problems blooming in the air, I had a chance to delve into a question I pondered long ago. Why weren’t the disciples charged with grave-robbing?
It is fun to discuss Christianity globally, and broad topics such as the Problem of Evil, and the Sovereignty/Free Will issue. But entire books have been written in those areas, and to cover it in a blog is impossible.
For many deconverts, Christianity did not fall because of one argument, or one paper, or one concept. It was the build up of many ideas, many problems, that individually would only cause questions, but exponentially grew to convincing us that Christianity is not true.
I thought I would focus on just one of these plethora of problems for a breather—the soldiers at the tomb.
Of course, as we all know, the Original Gospel of Mark has no post-resurrection happenings. It leaves us with an empty tomb, the failure of the disciples (Mark 15:40-41) an unknown young man directing to Galilee, and finally, the failure of the women. (Mark 16:8)
Mark has Joseph taking Jesus body, and Joseph rolling the rock in front of the tomb. (Mark. 15:46) No soldiers, no seal, no guard. The Gospel of Luke faithfully records Mark’s tale. (Luke 23:53) No soldiers, no seal, no guard. The Author of John, liking that Nicodemus chap from the third chapter, includes Nicodemus helping Joseph with the burial. (John. 19:39) No soldiers, no seal, no guard.
However, the author of Matthew has decided to “up the ante” as it were and include soldiers and seals on this tomb, at the request of the Priests. (Mt. 27:66) No other Gospel records these fighters. We are often informed that the reason for the various discrepancies in the Gospel accounts is that each author was focusing on differing aspects. Apparently the authors of Mark, Luke and John did not find the soldiers and seals important in their account.
But wait a minute. Luke and Mark both have the women bringing spices to anoint Jesus on the first day after Sabbath, and John has Mary approaching the tomb. While these three authors may not have found the soldiers and seal important, they still have to deal with them in their accounts! How were the ladies supposed to get around the guards? Were they to break the seal? In fact, Mark notes that the ladies DID take into account physical problems associated with getting to Jesus’ body. “Who will roll away the stone for us?” Mark 16:3.
They weren’t worried about the men with swords and spears and shields, there specifically to keep people like them out of the tomb. No, that wasn’t going to be the problem. They weren’t worried about breaking a seal that apologists inform me would result in the penalty of death. Naw, who would worry about that? The thing they were worried about is having the physical strength to roll back a stone.
While the other three authors may not have focused on soldiers and seals, this does not allow them to ignore them either! We are still well within the three-day period the priests were worried about, no reason to think the job was done. Already, we start to have serious questions about whether these soldiers really existed. The authors of Mark, Luke and John recount no knowledge of them, and the persons in their Gospels act as if they do not exist.
We are often informed they were Roman soldiers. They were not. There are four reasons we know this. First, the chief priests and Pharisees asked Pilate to make the tomb secure. Pilate tells them, “You have a guard” (they did) “make it is secure as you want.” (Matthew 27:66) Pilate didn’t offer a guard; he said “Use your own.”
Second, after the incident, who do the soldiers report to? A commanding Roman officer? No, they go back to the Chief priests. (Mt. 28:11) A Roman guard, reporting to Jewish religious leaders, and taking their advice? What is the likelihood of that? We have to assume that the authors of the other Gospels somehow missed the soldiers, now (in order to keep the story straight) we have to assume that Roman soldiers would answer to Jewish authorities. How far can we stretch credibility until it snaps?
Thirdly, the soldiers take a bribe! Mt. 28:12. How does the author of Matthew know of this? A bribe is, by its very nature, secretive. A soldier, taking a bribe from leaders of a conquered, troublesome nation, is no way for the soldier to advance their career! If this author knew it, it is very likely others did as well. The soldiers would have been severely disciplined, if not executed.
But the most important reason, is the excuse—“We fell asleep.” (Mt. 28:13) When apologists like to bolster how impossible the “stolen body” theory is, they trot out the fact that if a Roman guard fell asleep on his watch, the entire squad would be killed. “How it would have been possible for the disciples to sneak around the guards, since they would never have slept?” claims the apologist.
Assuming this for a moment—isn’t the dumbest reason in the WORLD for the guards to use for not fulfilling their job is to say, “We fell asleep”? I was just told that this excuse would result in a death penalty. Now they dredge it out. (And, if it would result in a death penalty, they would owe their lives to the priests to convince their commanding officer not to kill them. Hence, no bribery of money would have been necessary; the soldier’s very lives were in the priests’ hands.) No soldier, thinking that if they were to be accused of falling asleep at the job they would be killed, would ever use that excuse. Their response to the priests would have been, “You ignorant dolt. We say that, we are walking dead-men.”
Besides, why forget the earthquake? If “we fell asleep” would work, why not “the earthquake knocked us out”? It is there, it is convenient, and it won’t get them killed. Better, more believable, and gets around that nasty death penalty. It is as if they just completely forgot about the earthquake happening. Other Gospels do not account for it, Romans reporting to Jews, earthquakes forgotten about, excuses that result in death penalties—credibility is at the breaking point.
Unless, of course, the guards weren’t Roman. If they were temple guard, they would be under no such penalty, bribery would be necessary (since they could have fallen asleep), they would report to the priests—it all falls nicely in place.
Except one thing. If the priests were willing to pay Judas to betray Jesus, were willing to go to extraordinary lengths to have him killed, they equally could go to extra-ordinary lengths to pay off guards to say whatever they wanted them to say. Again, caught in the quandary. The apologist wants them Roman, so they could not be bribed, and then the apologist says they spread lies because…they were bribed!
We have three gospels that indicate there were no guards, no seal. One that claims there was. In the one that claims there was, we have priests, bribing their own guards to say whatever the priests want them to say. The credibility of this story of guards is now gone.
But there is more….
Assume for one moment it is true. That there were guards, that there was a seal. That we have an empty tomb to explain. We now have ready-made reasons to substantiate crimes against the disciples resulting in capital punishment. The simplest end of Christianity?
“Local Jerusalem news: ‘Disciples Charged: Death penalty likely.’” Remember, desecrating a tomb resulted in banishment at the least, death at the most.
The priests had used false witnesses before, in the plot to kill Jesus. Mt. 26:59-60. Mark 14:58-59 Now they have ready, willing and motivated witnesses to testify against the disciples.
As a generalization, religions enjoy controversy, but despise competition. Controversy allows one to rally the troops, weed out the faint-hearted, and re-instill loyalty. Jesus provided just the controversy need to substantiate the Pharisees’ position. Look what happened to him! By the time of his death, he had no followers, a mob had just chanted to kill him, and his religion was effectively wiped out. Pharisees proven again to be correct that violating YHWH’s laws only brings condemnation.
Then Peter steps up and preaches for the first time. And attracts 3000 followers. Acts 2:41. This is no longer controversy, it is becoming competition. By his second recorded sermon, the Priests and Sadducees (Luke had the right sect in power) arrest them. (Acts 4:1-3) The priests were concerned about the growing numbers. (Acts. 4:4)
What to do? What to do? Wait a minute! About two months ago, the priests had bribed their own soldiers to spread the rumor that these very men had committed a capital offense. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what to charge them with—desecrating a tomb and stealing a body. (And, don’t forget, we are assuming a resurrection. It isn’t like the disciples can have one of their own, Joseph, open up the tomb and show a body there. Not very likely Joseph or his family had time to bury another there in two months. The tomb would be empty—proof enough of a stolen body.) The priests have opportunity, motive, and witnesses. They want the disciples out of the picture? Easily done.
But what does Luke say? “They could find nothing as to how to punish them.” (Acts 4:21) Hey, Luke, why couldn’t the priests have used the crime of grave-robbing? Oh, that’s right. You didn’t write that; Matthew did. You didn’t find the guards important to the story.
The priests arrest Peter again. (Acts 5:28) Again they can’t remember using the grave-robbing accusation. Amazingly a Pharisee comes to their rescue, and recommends the Sadducees leave this growing religion alone. They did. For one chapter. The religion grew, the priests forgot the advice of Gamaliel, and execute Stephen.
Now we get the start of the persecution against the church by the Jewish authorities. At this point it became acceptable to kill them. Now, finally, can we see the Jewish authorities bring out the grave-robbing accusation? They want the Christians dead, they have a capital crime proof sitting right in their pocket, do they bring it out? Nope.
We have one witness, the author of Matthew, contending there were soldiers guarding the tomb. Every other witness does not include these soldiers. Every other participants in the story act as if these soldiers and seals are completely invisible. When it would be necessary to deal with their presence, they are ignored. When their existence would be helpful to the Jewish authorities, they are forgotten.
We have one witness, contrary to every other witness available, and his testimony does not make common sense. It does not fit with the actions, re-actions, and subsequent events. It is as if the soldiers were a part in the theatre, popping in for their requisite lines and actions, and then exiting stage left, never to be seen or heard again.
In the 60’s C.E. a Petronius Arbiter wrote a bawdy novel called Satyricaon. In Chapter 112, he wrote about a soldier, whose duty was to guard the corpses of crucified victims. The soldier was lured away, and sure enough, a corpse was stolen. As pure speculation, I wonder if the author of Matthew had heard this story, or one derived from it, and couldn’t resist incorporating it into his Gospel. An incorporation into the Gospel that gave a ready response for anyone else making the same accusation here.
Whatever the reason, the probability of soldiers at the tomb is so inconceivable, that using them as an defense to the empty tomb problem only invites more, not less, problems.
And this is just one of the very many problems with the Resurrection story…