Matthew and the guards at the tomb

In this post, I am going to look at the resurrection account given by Matthew, in particular his addition found in no other Gospel account, that there were guards stationed at the tomb.

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. Matthew claims that “to this day” Jews report the body as stolen (as opposed to resurrected).

So what is really going on here? This post will investigate the historicity of this claim and conclude that the guards at the tomb, as according to Matthew, were ahistorical.

Apologists have variously attempted to defend the account as being historical, such as William Lane Craig here. The critical view of this passage, as Craig sees it, is that the
guard is a Christian invention aimed at refuting the Jewish allegation that the scheming disciples had stolen the body…

Let us look at how contrived the setting of the guard appears to be (Matthew 27):
62 Now on the next day, [a]the day after the preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered together with Pilate, 63 and said, “Sir, we remember that when He was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I am to rise again.’ 64 Therefore, give orders for the grave to be made secure until the third day, otherwise His disciples may come and steal Him away and say to the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last deception will be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard; go, make it as secure as you know how.”

The first problem here that defenders need to deal with is the idea that, at the time of making these veiled claims, nobody believed Jesus, not even his disciples. And it is not even a case of believed - they simply didn't understand what he was going on about. And suddenly, after his death, you have a collection of worried Pharisees who seem to know exactly what could be in store. See John 2:18-22 and Matthew 27:39-40.

The second problem here is that the Pharisees are demanding a guard after an entire night has already passed, giving ample opportunity for the body to have been stolen. As FTB blogger Alethian Worldview counters:
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.

And Matthew 28 continues:
2 And behold, a severe earthquake had occurred, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the stone and sat upon it. 3 And his appearance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. 4 The guards shook for fear of him and became like dead men…
11 Now while they were on their way, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened. 12 And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, 13 and said, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’ 14 And if this should come to the governor’s ears, we will win him over and [a]keep you out of trouble.” 15 And they took the money and did as they had been instructed; and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day.

The first thing to notice is how different this is from the other Gospels. The guards simply did not feature. One must assume that since there were incredibly few witnesses of this event (and this, too, depends on what Gospel you read, from Mary, to Salome to Peter) which means that the Gospel writers could only have had no more than four witnesses to choose from. Even then, writing at the time they did, even if they did have access to the original first hand witness, there would most likely have only been one alive and findable to interview. Since the Gospels were written in different places and in foreign languages, it raises the question as to whether they writers had any access to such witnesses. Thus it is a tough call as to whether we can trust accounts such as the Gospels with unknown sources and accounts which differ on such basic details. To make matters worse, the Gospel of Mark has the Marys and Salome going to the tomb to anoint the body. If they knew guards would be there, then they would simply not do this (that and the fact that he had already been anointed in Bethany).

The problem for Matthew is that the only witnesses here are the guards themselves, which makes one wonder where the testimony for this story came from. As FTB blogger Alethian Worldview states:
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.

Craig claims that because Matthew is less embellished than the Gospel of Peter, the non-canonical Gospel that does include the story, it shoes its historical validity.

Craig claims:
By contrast in Matthew's story the guard is something of an afterthought; the fact that they were not thought of and posted until the next day could reflect the fact that only Friday night did the Jews learn that Joseph had, contrary to expectation, placed the body in a tomb, rather than allowing it to be discarded in a common grave. This could have motivated their unusual visit to Pilate the next day.

Of course, the ‘coulds’ here speak volumes. There is nothing to suggest that this addition is anything less than a mechanism similar to the apologetics of Peter, just slightly less fanciful.

Craig continues:
But perhaps the strongest consideration in favor of the historicity of the guard is the history of polemic presupposed in this story. The Jewish slander that the disciples stole the body was probably the reaction to the Christian proclamation that Jesus was risen.{14} This Jewish allegation is also mentioned in Justin Dialogue with Trypho 108. To counter this charge the Christians would need only point out that the guard at the tomb would have prevented such a theft and that they were immobilized with fear when the angel appeared.

Well, so far so good. This is entirely what the mechanism seems to set out to do, and indeed achieve (if believed).

To me, the account goes like this, and this dialogue would have developed over some time within early Christian and Jewish polemics:

Christian: Jesus resurrected from his tomb.
Jew: no he didn’t. Anyway, how do you know his body didn’t get stolen – this is a more probable explanation.
C: Aah, because there were guards outside the tomb on the insistence of the Pharisees.
J: Aah, but what if the guards were asleep.
C: The guards were not asleep.
J: How do you know?
C: Because we know that they saw it.
J: But why didn’t they tell anyone? Why is this not known everywhere since this is the resurrection of the Messiah?
C: Because the guards told their superiors and were bribed to keep silent.

So we can see the way that this clearly (to me) developed). What is clearly in the critical evaluator’s favour is the notion that the guards, having seen one of the most incredible sights – God resurrecting like lightning in the middle of an earthquake, decide that this is not life-changing and simply go back to their superiors and say “You know what, that geezer went and resurrected!”
“Did he really! Well, Ill be! Here’s a tenner. Don’t say anything and run along, like a good chap.”
“Right you are sir. Nothing to see here.”

It’s just ridiculous that if the guards actually saw this, and the Pharisees heard this, they continued to be guards and Pharisees and even attempt to cover it up! If you saw God, you would say, “Wow, that’s God. I now believe!” It’s just utterly nonsensical. As the Conversational Atheist chimes in:
These soldiers allegedly have front-row seats to the most important and impressive miracle of all time.

They don’t, however, start worshiping the obvious God-man whose death and resurrection bring about earthquakes, darkness in the middle of days and angels descending from heaven.

Instead, they return to the priests that sent them to guard this “impostor’s” tomb and tell them everything that happened.

These priests are now in quite a situation. They had to deal with all the stresses of organizing the Passover, and then they had to deal with this rabble-rousing Jesus character. And, as soon as they get Jesus sentenced to death, the trouble really begins.

There was an earthquake, the temple curtain being ripped from the ceiling to the floor, darkness that covered all the land, and now another earthquake.

On top of that there are all these reports of all kinds of dead saints that are walking around today, and to top it all off, the guards that the priests THEMSELVES had posted to guard the tomb came running back, terrified, telling them, “Hey! That guy that you sent to death for falsely proclaiming to be sent by God... Turns out, He is God! We were there, guarding the place... earthquake happens, angel comes blazing in from the sky rolls away the stone, Jesus came back to life just like he said would happen!”

At this point, if you don’t know how the story goes in Matthew, you might guess that the soldiers and priests became Christians and followed Jesus for the rest of their days.

You’d be wrong.

Craig, though, seems to ignore this. His first real defence is this:
In the first place it is unlikely that the Christians would invent a fiction like the guard, which everyone, especially their Jewish opponents, would realize never existed. Lies are the most feeble sort of apologetic there could be. Since the Jewish/ Christian controversy no doubt originated in Jerusalem, then it is hard to understand how Christians could have tried to refute their opponents' charge with a falsification which would have been plainly untrue, since there were no guards about who claimed to have been stationed at the tomb.

Of course, this prompts one to say that most of the Gospels look like a lie of sorts, and this further claim is no different. There are flat out contradictions, there is ripping of the Temple curtains, there are resurrected saints parading around Jerusalem. None of this is attested elsewhere and seems rather like lies to me. Also, in writing after the destruction of the Temple, the Temple records would have been destroyed. There would be no verification available to such questioners. It is the perfect time, indeed, to lie! Simply appealing to it being a feeble form of apologetic does not get the Gospel off the hook. Moreover, if this claim originated in the writing of Matthew, then this is some 50 to 60 years after the death of Jesus. Verification would be utterly impossible. This is a poor defence from Craig.

Craig further says:
But secondly, it is even more improbable that confronted with this palpable lie, the Jews would, instead of exposing and denouncing it as such, proceed to create another lie, even stupider, that the guard had fallen asleep while the disciples broke into the tomb and absconded with the body. If the existence of the guard were false, then the Jewish polemic would never have taken the course that it did. Rather the controversy would have stopped right there with the renunciation that any such guard had ever been set by the Jews. It would never have come to the point that the Christians had to invent a third lie, that the Jews had bribed the fictional guard.

But as I set out the development above, this would not necessarily be a lie, but a hypothesis. This defence is simply misplaced. The Jews could not verify whether a guard was posted or not, and so the dialogue would simply have to have progressed as above. Both sides make claims that were simply not falsifiable. The renunciation, as Craig claims, would be nothing more than an unverifiable assertion by the Jews that would allow the Christians to make their own unverifiable assertions. It’s just one big mess.

Craig concedes that his evidence is in the balance, whilst saying that even if it were a lie, it doesn’t affect the truth of the resurrection claim. How convenient:
So although there are reasons to doubt the existence of the guard at the tomb, there are also weighty considerations in its favor. It seems best to leave it an open question. Ironically, the value of Matthew's story for the evidence for the resurrection has nothing to do with the guard at all or with his intention of refuting the allegation that the disciples had stolen the body.

The conspiracy theory has been universally rejected on moral and psychological grounds, so that the guard story as such is really quite superfluous. Guard or no guard, no critic today believes that the disciples could have robbed the tomb and faked the resurrection. Rather the real value of Matthew's story is the incidental -- and for that reason all the more reliable -- information that Jewish polemic never denied that the tomb was empty, but instead tried to explain it away. Thus the early opponents of the Christians themselves bear witness to the fact of the empty tomb.

Trying to devalue the thesis that it is an ahistorical addition by trying to smear it as a mere conspiracy theory is a fairly poor show. “Universal rejection” is shorthand, it seems, for William Lane Craig. The worst sentence is this: “no critic today believes that the disciples could have robbed the tomb and faked the resurrection” which amounts to saying everyone on earth is a Christian or believer in the resurrection, since every critic believes the resurrection didn’t happen, and this is one amongst many far more plausible explanations than simply accepting that the Godmanspirit died for our sins, resurrected and sat on his own right hand whilst the world continues to sin in exactly the same way.

Another problem is that the guards would clearly have been Roman since they were issues by Pilate (otherwise the Sanhedrin would simply have got their own men and not bothered Pilate, and also 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” [see Liddell & Scott, στρατιώται]). Accepting bribes is punishable by death, so what would cause them to be so rash? Why would they then have confessed this, presumably, to the Gospel writers or someone else to pass it on to the writers, since that might as well be signing their own death warrant!

In conclusion, the guards weren't there. In itself, not earth-shattering. But what this does is open the floodgates to raise questions as to what other Gospel claims and what other aspects of the Resurrection claims are false? How can we differentiate that which is false from that which is true, if indeed any is?